blurred image of march

Failure to Launch: An Augmented Thick Description of #womenswave

L. Corinne Jones: University of Central Florida: @lcjones777

Research Conclusions

Combined, this quantitative and qualitative study demonstrates that #womenswave occurred with different arguments about #whyimarch and #imarchfor, demonstrating the diversity of reasons for which people marched. While it created intertextual linkages, it was unclear to what exactly those other hashtags were linking back, as it was unclear what #womenswave was “really about.” As such, it brought together distinct publics, but it did not bring together a coherent public which engaged in a dialogue about issues. Furthermore, it did not condense a clear and coherent argument. As such, while the hashtag did appear as a material actor, it was not a “vibrant actor” that provided a clear vantage point (interpretive frame) and it did not shape a greater collective to enact change in the world (Edwards & Lang, 2018).

Finally, I was uncomfortable using the hashtag myself. In her foundational article, Chaput (2010) claims that affect drives circulation more than neoliberal rationalism (7-8). Likewise, Edwards & Lang (2018) draw on Sara Ahmed and claim that “affect accumulates” and “sticks” to hashtags (127). In my case, the hashtag had anti-Semitic affective attachments. Furthermore, lack of intersectionality still “sticks” to the hashtag. At the march, though many of the parade spectators supported the women’s march in the middle of the Martin Luther King Jr. parade, some spectators in the crowd accused the marchers of voting for Trump; they were right. Though these particular individuals may not have voted for him, fifty-three percent of white women did vote for Trump in the 2016 election (Rogers, 2016a). With the affect of exclusivity and anti-Semitism that stuck to the hashtag, I was personally uncomfortable using the hashtag. In addition to my own experience, my large-scale data suggests that anti-Semitic affect “stuck” to #womenswave for others as well. The term “Jewish” appeared in 211 tweets. Though it is unclear if these Tweets defended or criticized the march, the debates about anti-Semitism “stuck.”  In comparison, “trump” only appeared in 209 tweets.  Though I do not know if this dissuaded other people from using the hashtag, this points to an important limitation of tracking a message online; messages may accrue affect that affects their circulation. Tracking the message and its movements does not necessarily tell the full story.

These findings, though limited to just my own non-Jewish, white autoethnographic study of #womenswave in Orlando in 2019, are important for a number of reasons. First, they point to how and why a hashtag may be less successful or fail to do some of the material work that rhetors intend. Though Gries (2015) and other new materialists point out that rhetoric is always beyond the control of the rhetor in eventful becoming, social media activist movements and recent scholarship on how those activists engage in sophisticated and coordinated rhetorical action for change (Navar-Gill & Stanfill, 2018; Vie, 2014) show that rhetors do have a degree of agency in how messages circulate in social media. Rather, I claim that hashtags exist on a continuum; they can be more instrumental and enact policy changes, or they can be more expressive.  

As such, this work shows some of the pitfalls which these activists may want to avoid if they want to increase their likelihood of successfully spreading their message, even if its circulation is ultimately out of their control. They can incorporate clear arguments into their hashtags to provide vantage points from which others can build. In the case of #womenswave, it was unclear what a women’s wave is or what it was supposed to bring. Was it bringing political change, and if so, through what kinds of policies? Additionally, rhetors must be aware of the affective content that “sticks” to their messages and think about how those affects will affect circulation. Anti-Semitic affect stuck to #womenswave, as was apparent in my own experiences and in the large-scale data that I collected. Finally, rhetors can compose messages with clear issues that their messages are “really about,” rather than relying on empty hashtags without clear reference points. As was the case in this case study, though many other issues and hashtags linked back to #womenswave, it was unclear to what they were linking back.

This lack of a clear reference attests to a second important suggestion. It may be problematic to focus on spread and circulation for the sake of spread and circulation. As noted above, it is unclear what #womenswave was “really about,” pointing to the existential crisis of the hashtag. While it became involved in many other intertextual linkages, the sign to which these other hashtags linked back was empty. #womenswave was, in many ways, an empty sign, or what Baudrillard (1994) might call a simulacrum. For Baudrillard, “copies” are based on derived resemblances, while “simulacra” pretend to “be” something without resembling the original idea (257). They are signs that do not have a referent. On the other hand, while Baudrillard (1994) ultimately wants signs to reference an objective reality, Foucault (2001) sees signs as reciprocally generating that reality. No matter the relationship between the sign and reality, signs without clear referents do not index clear policy goals.

Likewise, in the case of #womenswave, though many other hashtags indexed it, since it was unclear what a women’s wave was or what kinds of changes it was supposed to bring, #womenswave became a kind of simulacrum or empty sign. As such, as also noted by Dieterle, Edwards, and Martin (2019), circulation, popularity, and spread are only half of the story; virality does not equate to “success” (198). While #womenswave circulated widely, it is unclear what it was circulating, pointing to the limitations of just tracking a digital object (hashtag, image, etc.). Rather than simply teach for rhetorical velocity.  as the end-goal then, researchers and teachers need to also think about the content of the rhetorical digital objects which they are circulating. This broadly aligns with other scholars in the field who are thinking about "slow circulation" as a complement to viral circulation (Bradshaw, 2018). Teachers can ask both themselves and their students questions about the content of what rhetors circulate and how that content affects circulation and what real-world material affects that content has on the world.  This is especially important in the face of concerns about fake news, though these concerns are far from new (Cloud, 2018; Laquintano & Vee, 2017).

Third, scholars and researchers also need to be aware of the limitations of simply tracking an object. While Gries proved that tracking objects across contexts can be fruitful (Gries, 2015), iconographic tracking tells only a part of the story, as it cannot capture the affect that spurs or hinders how a digital text moves and affects the world. Though I could trace and track where #womenswave appeared in both offline and online settings, that data did not totally capture the sentiments connected to #womenswave, including my own personal feelings on why I chose to not use the hashtag. This kind of information would not be reflected in data about where hashtags materialize, and it could only be collected with qualitative interviews or surveys. As such, this kind of qualitative data about people’s choices to circulate or not circulate a hashtag would be a productive area for future research.

Finally, these findings point to important methodological considerations for technofeminist researchers and activists. Historically, feminist and technofeminist researchers have worked to respect their participants and to recognize them as co-authors (Blair & Tulley, 2007). As feminist and queer researchers challenge the dualistic divide between offline/online and privacy/publicity, technofeminist researchers may also need to consider the possible implications of circulating digital content about their participants, especially images. This is particularly important because those images can be picked up, re-composed, and re-circulated by others who may have malicious intentions (Sheridan, Ridolfo & Michel, 2012, 82). Out of concern for participants then, technofeminist researchers should also ethically consider what information to publish about participants, even if the social rules and norms of their research sites allow, and even encourage, them to collect certain types of information, such as images. This points to documentation and curation as an important consideration for technofeminist researchers.

In conclusion, though #womenswave was a limited case study, it points to larger paradigmatic issues and questions within circulation studies with which scholars and citizens must contend. Though the circulation of a hashtag may be ultimately out of the rhetor’s control, hashtags without clear arguments and that have accrued negative affect may be less successful. Additionally, hashtags may be less successful when they become simulacrum, or empty signs. Rather, social media users and pedagogues who teach for rhetorical velocity need to think about the content of what a hashtag circulates as well. There are apparent limits to simply tracking a hashtag. Affect may drive individual choices about whether to circulate or not circulate a hashtag, and those choices can only be understood by qualitative interviews or surveys. Finally, technofeminist researchers should consider their curation practices, especially in regards to images.

Rhetorical Velocity
refers to “a conscious rhetorical concern for distance, travel, speed, and time, pertaining specifically to theorizing instances of strategic appropriation by a third party” (Ridolfo & DeVoss, 2009) 
"Slow Circulation"
complements the viral model of circulation. Rather than an end goal of quick and viral spread, slow circulation emphasizes change through rhetorical persistence over time (Bradshaw, 2018)