#asmc14 paper: Hashtag as hybrid forum: the case of #agchatoz

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’).

Speaker Notes

Introduction
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).

Hashtag studies
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.

#agchatoz
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]

Conclusion
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.

References
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.

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Who’s @theqldpremier?

So, I’m sure Australian readers will have noticed that some things changed in Queensland over the weekend.

Sometime yesterday I noticed that now ex-Premier Anna Bligh’s Twitter account, @theqldpremier (which had been going great guns, by the way, and props to her for that among many other things), looked all wrong:

There had already been plenty of half-joking speculation as to what was going to happen to the Twitter account. At first, like several other people, I thought that somehow amid the adrenaline rush, sleep deprivation and media frenzy of the election, that Anna Bligh’s team had ceremonially handed over her Twitter account along with the custodianship of the State. Perhaps there was a Social Media Account Handover Policy sitting somewhere in a filing drawer in Parliament House?

Then I dug around a bit and realised that Anna Bligh still had her account (and therefore her history and followers, etc), but had simply changed her username – which is something anyone can do at any time, of course:

But then I thought, hang on. Campbell Newman seems to have taken over the @theqldpremier handle instantly. Automagically, even. Did someone really organise this? Surely his team has better things to do the day after the election? Maybe social media really has arrived.

A wee spot of forensics ensued – it looks like someone (@samueljacksonmp) unconnected with the Newman team noticed the username was free, had the foresight to grab it for himself, and passed it on to the new Premier’s team (who have yet to really do anything with it). I also note that it isn’t a ‘verified’ official account, and never has been I don’t think.

Anyway, here’s some screenshots from my little expedition:

I’ve no way of verifying that this is how it happened, but it makes a lot more sense than the Official Social Media Account Handover Policy theory.

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After the Apology

Sorry the first step

Like many others, I was floored by how utterly uncynical, uncompromising, and genuinely empathetic Rudd’s speech turned out to be this morning. I’m actually proud of my government for the first time in a very long time. I’m struggling for words, and that’s quite OK.

Said with more eloquence I can muster right now at Sorrow at Sill’s Bend:

The message was loud and clear. Australia is sorry. There will be no more lies and evasions; the government of Australia apologises for what it did. The first business of the new Parliament was the making of a long overdue forceful and formal acknowledgement of dreadful wrongs and a sincere expression of sorrow for the pain and grief these wrongs caused. It is not incongruous or wrong to feel joyfulness and optimism because the joy is for what might come of what was done so well today.

For readers who weren’t able to watch the apology live this morning, here it is (part 1)

Parts 2, 3 and 4 here.

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Sorry

Tomorrow, the Prime Minister will say sorry to Indigenous Australians, and especially to the members of the Stolen Generations, on behalf of the Parliament and successive Governments.

Shamefully, it comes more than a decade after the Bringing Them Home report.

It’s very significant, it’s about time, and it’s (only) a start.

The sense of occasion around it has produced spaces in the cultural public sphere for the thousands of stories that have been told and retold, but not necessarily heard; in a way the speech itself is an act of listening.

A couple of personal remarks:

Earlier I was curious about how much anticipation of the event was building on YouTube; and of what kind.

Can you guess what the top result for a search based on the keywords ‘sorry Australia’ is?

This is.

I couldn’t bear to actually embed the image, let alone the video. I will have to think long and hard about the implications for my stubborn optimism about participatory culture.

A couple of videos that date from around the time I (probably, far too complacently) assumed a government apology would happen any day.

This is Keating at Redfern in 1992, a moment which feels slightly bizarre and tuneless to me now, not least because it is so very long ago; and politically, so very distant from where we are now. Notice the one and only audible burst of applause, at about 01:42 – you can probably skip to there:

And Archie Roach – another remembered moment from the early 1990s, which probably did more to sear the need for an apology into the hearts and minds of non-Indigenous Australians than anything else at that time:

It all seemed so much closer way back then than it did just a few short months ago. I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.

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