Social Media, Digital Humanities, and Community Activism

In this survey, I hope we can discuss how digital humanists are poised to contribute to studies of social media activism through research, teaching, and community outreach. For the last eight years, I have been developing and testing a digital research method called iconographic tracking, which I designed to trace the ongoing circulation and rhetorical activities of new media images (See Gries 2015). This method has proved to be especially useful in identifying the actor-networks that assemble and reassemble to enact change through various protests and social movements. In tracing Shepard Fairey’s now iconic Obama Hope image, for example, I was able to learn how this image became involved in the Obama Art movement that emerged in 2008 as a distributed network of artists, craftspeople, graphic designers, and public relations gurus leveraged visual rhetoric, social media, and public events to help Barack Obama become the first African American president in the history of the United States. In addition, I was able to trace Obama Hope’s involvement in Greenpeace’s transnational environmental campaign, the Occupy movement, and the Arab Spring, all of which came together via people on the ground intra-acting with various communicative resources and social media to achieve their interrelated campaign goals. One important use value of this method, then, is its ability to enhance our studies of how social media activist movements emerge, generate collective power, and work toward change in digitally saturated, globalized world.

Besides enhancing digital research of transnational phenomena, iconographic tracking can be useful for generating large amounts of data to help build theories about social media activism, especially for humanities scholars invested in studies of how communities unite, fight against structural injustices, and become politically engaged throughout grassroots organization. More so, such research can be useful for teaching our own students how to use social media and other rhetorical tactics to produce and implement their own activist campaigns. In a course I regularly teach called Writing, (Viral) Circulation, and Publics, for instance, I draw on my research findings with Obama Hope to teach students how to use visual rhetoric, social media, and image events--staged acts of protest intended for media dissemination (See Delicath and Deluca)--to accomplish their own individual campaign missions. Through engaged activism, students come to learn how their own rhetorical actions can address local problems, attract public attention, and accomplish social goals. As digital humanists, we ought be more invested in using our social media research to educate and activate a productive citizen base.

While certainly promising in academic contexts, however, I can’t help but wonder how our digital humanities research might be useful to broader communities. If desired, for instance, our research could also help already-existing organizations better achieve their own social media activism goals. For the last couple of years, for instance, I have had the opportunity to travel to India for both pleasure and work. On my last visit, I met a community organizer in Dharamsala who works with educators from the U.S. and Europe to design service-learning courses to assist local women’s organizations in achieving their unique goals. I told her about my research and my viral circulation course described above in which students design and implement their own semester-long social campaigns. Community organizers, she says, would be very interested in collaborating because many local organizations, especially underserviced ones with little funding, have yet to figure out how visual campaigns and social media technologies can help them spread their messages and services. As a visual rhetoric and digital humanities scholar, I think we ought to expend more energy reaching out to such groups so we can learn together how social media might help activist organizations fight for change in ways that are meaningful to and appropriate for their communities.

We might even go so far as to begin working with such groups to develop social media apps to help accomplish their unique goals. Arts-based research, or what is called research-creation in Canada, is an emergent methodology in which research projects typically entail a creative process involving an experimental aesthetic component and artistic practice, such as the production of a video, performance, film, sound work, blog, or multimedia text. This methodology, which is becoming more and more popular in the humanities as well as the social sciences, ought not be limited to the production of creative arts. Working in conjunction with local community organizations, digital humanists might design, produce, and test social media for activist purposes. In creating such apps as part of our research agendas, digital humanists can harness social media experimentation to both further humanistic inquiry within the academy and address community-driven needs beyond.

It has been said that the digital humanities is about using computational tools for transformative purposes, namely to “transform the content, scope, methodologies, and audience of humanistic inquiry” (Burdick et al). As we continue in such efforts, how might we direct such transformation to benefit not only the humanities and our students but also our local communities? And in regards to social media activism, in particular, how might we design new social media technologies and practices alongside our community partners to work for a more just and humane world?

Works Cited:

Burdick, Anne et al. Digital Humanities. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012. 

Chapman, Owen and Kim Sawchuk. “Research-Creation: Intervention, Analysis, and ‘Family Resemblances.’” Canadian Journal of Communication 37 (2012): 5-26.

Delicath, John W. and Kevin Michael Deluca. “Image Events, The Public Sphere, and Argumentative Practice: The Case of Radical Environmental Groups.” Argumentation 17 (2003): 315-333.

Gries, Laurie E. Still Life with Rhetoric: A New Materialist Approach for Visual Rhetorics. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2015.


Dr. Gries

I think your work on iconographic tracking is fantastic. I am especially intrigued by the notion of how using this method helps us in the academy better understand digital social movements. I am also struck by your insistence that scholars do not have to become something else in order to become involved, but that we should unabashedly offer skills we have developed because of our experience in the academy. As you suggest, one such skill is creating methodologies that explore the tangible ways digital social movements affect change. I agree with your suggestion that such work is a vital contribution to such causes as it could help activists replicate success and eliminate blind spots. Furthermore, I think that such work is activist in and of itself. I also believe that embracing the tactile nature of methodologies like research-creation can help digital humanists become direct agents in activist movements. Like you, I think we have much to contribute, if we are committed to being collaborators with our community partner who are doing some very transformative work. 



Sherie. Its interesting to think about why so many of us don't consider reaching out more to community partners. I wonder too how such outreach would even be received when it comes to activist organizations. I also wonder about the complications in doing so, especially in working with groups in cultures different than our own. One of my former colleagues at UF, Maria Rogul, does really interesting work in which she works with local organizations to design graphics for their homemade artisan goods and advertisements. She works really hard to draw on their own cosmologies, histories, rituals, and aesthetic traditions to co-design graphics that are representative and meaning to them while simultaneously appealing to tourists and others. If digital humanists are going to partner up with local communities abroad, I think we have to follow this lead, especially in postcolonial cultures. It would be fascinating, and as you note, transformative to do such work. Any one have any project ideas?

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