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Failure to Launch: An Augmented Thick Description of #womenswave


L. Corinne Jones: University of Central Florida: l.corinne.jones@gmail.com: @lcjones777

Introduction: Invention, Spread, and Consequentiality

Abstract

Circulation studies scholars value circulation for its potential to be inventive, “spreadable,” and to have real-world consequentiality and many have conducted insightful work on the spreadability of digital objects. However, circulation can spread both social justice movements and hate-speech. As such, scholars and citizens cannot solely value a digital object based on its “metric power” (Dieterle et al. 2019). Furthermore, not everything that circulates ends up having real-world intended consequences. In this case study, I track #womenswave as a topos (Edwards & Lang, 2018) as it circulated during the 2019 Women’s March. In this webtext, I make two interventions. First, I explore how circulation studies researchers might augment existing methods with “augmented thick description” and I suggest that curation is a part of technofeminist research practice. Second, I consider why #womenswave had equivocal real-world consequences. Ultimately, #womenswave had ambiguous content; it attached to multiple and fragmented issues, did not have a clear argument, and it became an empty sign. Though I recognize that the circulation of the hashtag is not entirely within the control of rhetors, I point to pitfalls activists can avoid to encourage the circulation of their hashtags.

Introduction

As the field of digital rhetoric has evolved, including by moving away from strictly computer-based conceptions (Haas, 2007) and away from Western-centric definitions of rhetoric (Banks, 2011), scholars have highlighted digital rhetoric’s inventive potential, its “spreadability,” and its real-world impacts in circulation studies (Alford, 2016; Brooke, 2009; Gries, 2015; Jenkins et al., 2013). Broadly speaking, Gries (2018) argues that “circulation studies can be understood in the most general and simple sense, as the study of writing and rhetoric in-motion coming out of the disciplines of RC/WS [rhetoric-composition/writing studies] and communication” (7). As it speaks to important issues of access, affect, infrastructure, bodies, and power, she contends circulation has become so central to the field of rhetoric and composition that it constitutes a threshold concept, which qualitatively transforms and changes understandings of reading, writing, and literacy (5). Though texts and ideas circulate in Internet spaces, scholars argue that they are inherently material (Bonilla & Rosa, 2015; Edwards & Lang, 2018; Gries, 2015; Queen, 2008; Trimbur, 2000). Circulation, then, is an important threshold concept for rhetoric and composition because it transforms how people compose. As Dieterle, Edwards, & Martin (2019) claim (re)circulation is itself a kind of writing (199-200).

Overall, scholars have identified three important features of circulation. First, they have noted the inventive potential of circulation. Brooke (2009) sees delivery (and circulation, by extension) as “blurring the lines between distribution and coproduction” (173, emphasis added). Likewise, Ridolfo and Devoss (2009) see circulation as integral to invention and propose that instructors teach students to compose for rhetorical velocity. Similarly, Yancey (2016) notes that digital delivery is connected to “inventive thinking,” and Alford (2016) furthers this idea, claiming that hashtags become a place for choric and doxic invention.  Finally, Dieterle et al. (2019) articulate circulation as transformative and “world-building” (197). These authors point to circulation as an inherently inventive and creative process.


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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) 

Secondly, scholars value circulation for its potential in “spreadability.” Jenkins, Ford, &Green (2013) claim that new media are “spreadable,” and Ridolfo and DeVoss's (2009) argument that teachers should teach students to compose texts for wide distribution also implicitly values how widely a text is spread. Likewise, Krimmage & Ridolfo (2007) explore how texts can travel across platforms and amplify certain content through the “amplification effect.” Sometimes referred to as “metric power,” (Dieterle et al., 2019, 206), this feature of circulation is further underscored in Dijck & Poell's (2013) claim that an important feature of social media logic is popularity. These authors hold up spreadability and popularity as important factors in how scholars and citizens value circulation.

Consequentiality is a third important feature of circulation. Gries (2015) sees circulation as an event that is always becoming and claims that texts are consequential as they intra-act  in multiple simultaneous assemblages. For Gries (2015), circulation has real and material effects on the world (71). Likewise, Bonilla and Rosa, (2015), Dieterle et al. (2019), Edwards and Lang, (2018) Navar-Gill and Stanfill (2018), Queen (2008), Trimbur (2000), and Vie (2014) all explore how circulation has real-world effects, especially for social justice movements (#metoo, #blacklivesmatter, etc.). These real-world effects are particularly important for social justice issues because, as Jones (2016) succinctly puts it; “social justice not only requires critical consideration but also action” (473).

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Intra-act
By intra-act, Gries (2015) means that texts transform the things with which they come into contact and are simultaneously transformed by those contacts as well (58-59).

However, these features are not without nuances. Messages may circulate widely, but still be of little consequence (Alford, 2016). Furthermore, activist circulation can be exclusive (Tetreault, 2019). Racist and sexist biases can be normalized in algorithmic selection and distribution processes (Noble, 2018), and infrastructural power dynamics of platforms create “circulation gatekeepers” that control the flow of information (Edwards, 2018). Even when circulation is successful, it can spread harmful and hateful messages. Laquintano and Vee (2017) and Cloud (2018) point to how circulation can spread disinformation. Additionally, Chaput (2020) demonstrates how conservative groups co-opt and reuse leftist activist tactics, pointing to how ill-intentioned actors could also use these tactics for their own ends. As such, Dieterle et al. (2019) suggest that popularity and “metric power” cannot be the sole evaluative criteria of digital objects (206). Instead, like Edwards and Lang (2018), they add that there is an important affective component of consequentiality, which can be positive or negative and which accrue as a digital object circulates.

These complications are important; Haas (2007) calls for scholars to re-imagine hypertext and digital rhetoric more generally as more civically responsible (93). Valuing circulation for its own sake can overlook these civic responsibilities, including the need to consider the explicit and affective content of circulated messages (Dieterle, et al., 2019). As such, though circulation has great potential, citizens and civically-minded technofeminists scholars need to also consider what is being circulated, what power dynamics circulation perpetuates and maintains, what factors mitigate successful hashtags activism, and the potential consequences of circulation.

For technofeminist activists interested in real-world change, this raises the question: how do circulated hashtags acquire "thing-power"  (Edwards & Lang, 2018; Gries, 2015)? What factors mitigate hashtags from doing real-world rhetorical work to change their environments? Furthermore, what civic responsibilities do they have to consider the potential consequences of their publication practices?

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Thing-Power
refers to“the power things acquire when working alongside other entities to produce change” (Gries, 2015, 12)

To pursue this question, I explored a case study of #womenswave during the 2019 Women’s March in Orlando, Florida.  Broadly speaking, my research questions were: How does #womenswave exhibit thing-power and intra-act with the world; what aids in this intra-action and what inhibits it?

In the other sections of this webtext, I make two interventions through my case study. I make my first intervention by augmenting the insightful work scholars have already done with circulation methods. Since spreadability is an important feature of circulation, many researchers have paid particular attention to spreadability and "metric power.” I add a qualitative ethnographic component in what I am calling augmented thick description and I contend that technofeminist research practice can include curation as the dualism between online/offline and publicity/privacy is increasingly blurred. Second, I intervene by pointing to features which might technofeminist hashtag activism.