I’m posting this from the University of Amsterdam, where we are now well into the final day of a fantastic three-day conference called Social Media and the Transformation of Public Space. We have quite a gang of participants here from the QUT Social Media Research Group, and we’ll collect all our papers up and post them over at that website soon, but in the meantime here are the slides and notes from my paper (co-authored with Theresa Sauter). It’s the first public outing of new work I’ve been doing in collaboration with Theresa and also Anne Galloway, which will come out in due course as part of a book project that Nathan Rambukkana is putting together for Peter Lang (the book has the working title ‘Hashtag Publics’).
This paper proceeds on the basis that contemporary publics are emergent – that is, they are constituted through their involvement with mediated issues and events, rather than pre-existing as a ‘public sphere’ (Marres, 2012; Warner, 2005). Digital media platforms and practices are influencing both the nature of such publics and the means through which they engage in issues (Papacharissi, 2010; Bruns & Burgess, 2011); at the same time, digital methods present significant new opportunities, not only to understand but also to improve this situation (Rogers, 2013).
Hashtags are often used to focus empirical research on the dynamics of public communication in Twitter, on a range of traditional topics extending from elections to natural disasters and television audiences (Bruns & Burgess, 2011; Bruns & Stieglitz, 2012; Deller, 2011). Indeed, the current proliferation of data-driven research on Twitter within media & communication studies has led to a saturation of what we might call ‘hashtag studies’.
… While the choice to focus on hashtag-based discussions has largely been driven by a combination of methodological convenience and the constraints on access to Twitter data,
there is still room to consider the performative role of the hashtag in materially shaping and coordinating public communication on specific issues, within and across social media platforms. However, most of the scholarship on hashtags has considered them as mere communicative markers.
SO: Hashtags enable, shape and coordinate the emergence, connectivity and mutual awareness of ad hoc publics (see also Bruns and Burgess 2011) outside of their participants’ individual networks of followers.
Bruns and Stieglitz (2011) differentiate between three different types of hashtags: ad hoc ones, which emerge “in response to breaking news or other unforeseen events”; recurring ones, which users employ to contribute repeatedly to a certain topic (such as the #agchatoz which we investigate in this chapter); and praeter hoc ones, which relevant organisations predetermine and encourage users to adopt when tweeting about a particular event, such as a conference or TV show.
Bruns and Moe (2013) further distinguish between topical and non-topical hashtags. They suggest that topical hashtags are used to contribute to a discussion on a particular topic. These can be long-standing themes (e.g. #auspol), backchannels to TV events (e.g. #masterchef) or reactions to particular issues or events (#royalwedding). Non-topical hashtags are emotive markers, such as #facepalm or #fail and can be applied to any type of tweet. Hashtags are highly generative, malleable and replicable in cultural terms.
Hashtags as hybrid forums
This paper focuses specifically on how some (but not all) hashtags can be understood as what Michel Callon, in the context of technology and society, has called ‘hybrid forums’:
Forums because they are open spaces where groups can come together to discuss technical options involving the collective, hybrid because the groups involved and the spokespersons claiming to represent them are heterogeneous, including experts, politicians, technicians, and laypersons who consider themselves involved. They are also hybrid because the questions and problems taken up are addressed at different levels in a variety of domains. (Callon, Lascoumes & Barthe, 2001:18)
Here, in exploring the possible forms and forums of ‘technical democracy’ e.g. in relation to nuclear power or genetically modified food, Callon is discussing rather more formalised and more recognisably institutional spaces – indeed the traditional institutions and fora of democracy – than social media, but this is precisely where digital methods applied to social media platforms have much to offer.
To this definition, we would add that they are also markedly hybrid today because they take place within a complex media environment centred around social media platforms, whose volatile dynamics, material features and competing business models also need to be taken into account.
The case study for this paper is #agchatoz, a persistent and recurring Twitter hashtag with at least some of the characteristics of a ‘hybrid forum’ understood in this way. A local variant on the original US-based #agchat farmer advocacy or “agvocacy” Twitter community, #agchatoz originally had a mission to “raise the profile of Australian agriculture by shining a light on the leading issues that affect the industry and the wider community.” Weekly Twitter Q&A sessions use the #agchatoz hashtag to capture discussions of interest to the self-identifying agricultural community, ranging from personal issues such as succession planning and rural mental health, to work matters including sustainable farming methods and how to manage natural disasters, as well as more public concerns such as animal welfare and live export. Most discussions solicit a range of perspectives from producers, consumers, scientists, journalists and other professionals; sometimes discussions connect to other issues and their hashtags (like #banliveexport for the issue of animal welfare in the meat industry), thereby causing a collision of constituencies.
A survey of the most-shared URLs over six months on the hashtag gives an indication of the kinds of topical coverage. From agvocacy…
…including organised lobbying…
…to deliberative democratic engagement with high stakes environmental issues affecting farming and rural communities, like coal seam gas exploration…
…creating at times some counter-intuitive alliances between the urban left and the rural right….
…and even the Greens….
….while much of the tenor of the conversation frames the hashtag as an opportunity to bypass media stereotypes and have a voice in national debate, there is also a fair bit of antagonism towards a perceived uninformed city-dwelling culture who insufficiently value the role of agribusiness in Australia’s society and economy.
…and there are some dramatic collisions of opposing viewpoints and organised political groups on issues like animal welfare/animal rights.
…not to mention #felfies!
So #agchatoz, we argue, is a hybrid forum in the ways we described above, borrowing from and extending on Callon.
a generative site of speculative examples
a topical area not so familiar in media and communication studies, which tends to be more interested in politics, culture, and media in themselves
how can digital methods be used to discover issues and their publics, rather than researching already-known ones?
[refer here to the data slides, which for now have to more or less speak for themselves]
As we move forward with this project, digital methods combined with close regular observation allow us to go well beyond noting the loudest voices and dominant themes and attempt to trace the full diversity of stakeholder and non-stakeholder perspectives, substantive issues and topical diversions that come together within the #agchatoz forum. We argue that such an approach can help to tease out the complexity and diversity of issues of concern to and generative of publics. It is therefore important also to develop modes of performing such research in public, such that we reflexively and explicitly engage the publics forming around these issues.
Bruns, A. & Burgess, J. (2011). The use of Twitter hashtags in the formation of ad hoc publics. In 6th European Consortium for Political Research General Conference, 25 – 27 August 2011, University of Iceland, Reykjavik.
Bruns, A. and Moe, H. 2013. “Structural Layers of Communication on Twitter.” In Twitter and Society edited by K. Weller, A. Bruns, J. Burgess, M. Mahrt & C. Puschmann, 15-28. New York, NY: Peter Lang.
Bruns, A., & Stieglitz, S. (2012). Quantitative approaches to comparing communication patterns on Twitter. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 30(3-4), 160-185.
Callon, M., Lascoumes, P., Barth, Y. (2001). Acting in an Uncertain World. An Essay on Technical Democracy. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England. (Translated by Graham Burchell).
Deller, R. (2011). Twittering On: Audience Research and Participation Using Twitter. Participations 8(1). http://www.participations.org/Volume%208/Issue%201/deller.htm
Halavais, A. 2013. “Structure of Twitter: Social and Technical. ” In Twitter and Society edited by K. Weller, A. Bruns, J. Burgess, M. Mahrt & C. Puschmann, 29-42. New York, NY: Peter Lang.
Marres, N. (2012). Material Participation: Technology, the Environment and Everyday Publics. London: Palgrave.
Papacharissi, Z. (2010). A private sphere: Democracy in a digital age. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Rogers, R. (2013). Digital methods. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Ruppert, Evelyn, John Law and Mike Savage. 2013. “Reassembling Social Science Methods: The Challenge of Digital Devices.“ Theory, Culture & Society 30(4): 22-46.
Warner, M. (2005). Publics and Counterpublics. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press.