Networked Feminisms: Activist Assemblies and Digital Practices – with Feminist Think Tank Panel Overview

Tuesday, April 26, 2022
by Sid Heeg

To celebrate the launch of their edited collection Networked Feminisms: Activist Assemblies and Digital Practices, editors Drs. Shana MacDonald (Communication Arts), Bri Wiens (Communication Arts), Milena Radzikowska (Mount Royal University), and Michelle MacArthur (University of Windsor) invited their fellow co-authors to discuss the intersections between feminist theories and digital technologies with researchers at the Games Institute. 

Networked Feminisms: Activist Assemblies and Digital Practices is on sale now.

Video recordings of the talks can be found on the Feminist Think Tank website or their YouTube channel.

The speaker series included three seminars that highlighted three or four contributors from the collection and a Q&A section that involved questions from the moderators and audience. Dr. Wiens opened each talk with a land acknowledgement, and two sign language interpreters were active throughout all exchanges for accessibility.

The cover of Network Feminisms

Conceptual Frameworks for Networked Feminism – January 27, 2022 

The panelists in the first speaker series were Drs. Melissa Brown (University of Maryland), Tara L. Conley (Montclair State University), and PhD Candidate Helena Suárez Val (University of Warwick). Starting off the series, Dr. Wiens gave a general introduction to the series and the book at large, explaining that the book is a result of collaborative work between many researchers, activists, and artists. 

Dr. Conley began her presentation "A Sign of the Times: Hashtag Feminist as a Conceptual Framework” by examining how we make meaning with objects—both physical and digital. Throughout her talk, she documented various hashtag movements she followed to uncover how hashtags such as #MeToo act as a form of feminist discourse and embodied practice. 

Conley discovered that hashtag movements led by black women and women of colour, storytellers, media markers, and activists began trending together in 2013: “It was a watershed moment, a moment of authoring for them” she explained. Conley argued that this was when social media sites began to change and that black women, and women of colour, were shaping this frontier of hashtag use and trends.

Dr. Brown opened her discussion on “Virtual Sojourners: The Duality of Visibility” by speaking about Darnella Frazier, whose video captured the death of George Floyd. Brown examined how many were marginalized not only by the state but by information and communication technologies which could be used against marginalized people, just as Darnella Frazier was harassed after exposing the identities of the police officers who killed George Floyd. 

Brown built off the work of black women and LGBTQ people who act as virtual sojourners through the creation and maintenance of virtual counter publics and digital enclaves. “The digital practices they engage with,” Brown stated, “seek to create a space where they can generate unique perspectives.” 

Helena Suárez Val began studying femicide and data in Uruguay when she discovered that there was little to no data about the many violent deaths of women taking place. Her chapter “Affect Amplifiers: Feminist Activists and Digital Cartographies of Feminicide” details her research in this area.

Since the beginning of this research project in 2010, there has been an increase in the proliferation of data artifacts. She visualized this data on a map of the region to locate where these acts of violence had been committed and to track the activism of the women protesting these deaths locally. Suárez Val engages with frameworks that emphasize emotional responses with a critical feminist lens to examine how this data travels and reverberates on social media.

Networked Digital Identities and Communities - February 16, 2022 

The second speaker series brought together Ace J. Eckstein (Peak to Peak Charter School), Drs. Adan Jerreat-Poole (Toronto Metropolitan University), and Elizabeth Nathanson (Muhlenberg College) for the discussion of “Networked Digital Identities and Communities.”

Dr. Jerreat-Poole said their chapter “Chronic Fem(me)bots: Keywords for Crip Feminists” emerged from an understanding that disabled people have leveraged online spaces and tactics as tools for care work and activism. Their research delved into work with keywords and keyword searches in how information was organized online. They sought to disrupt algorithmic norms by utilizing search terms that would never be searched together otherwise—like ‘chronic’ and ‘feminism.’ 

In their work in these areas, they realized that as we have moved to increasingly online lives in the age of COVID, the rapid movement of these spaces have become increasingly inaccessible to disabled bodies. Jerreat-Poole noted that research online is still labour and ended their talk by saying, we should “consider reorienting our understanding of technology around slowness.”

Eckstein started off by explaining that since he first started writing the chapter “'Being Seen for Who I Am': Counterpublic Trans Intelligibility and Queer Worldmaking on YouTube,” he has moved away from academia and now has a position as a teacher-librarian. 

Eckstein shared his own personal accounts of his transition as he learned from other trans YouTubers how to inject hormones. He analyzed 5 trans men YouTube channels and how these trans men document their personal transitions. Eckstein argues that these YouTube channels exist as counterpublics where the primary audience has been trans people and cis viewers are "forced to read themselves into the situation" as they were not the intended audience.

Dr. Nathanson joined the conversation with their chapter “Hope Wears a White Collar: RBG Memes and Signifying Intergenerational Solidarity,” exploring how Ruth Bader Ginsberg (RBG) has been memed on the internet. She noticed that RBG was memed as a form of uniquely digital praise and celebration. These memes have worked to glorify and mobilize RBG’s body as an older woman, depicting her body as a tool of resistance and not a hindrance. “Her strength is built through time and not despite it,” Nathanson explained. This constructed “intergenerational solidarity” by portraying RGB’s body as something that was vital to youth cultures looking to be involved in American politics.

Digital Activism in Practice – March 14, 2022 

The final speaker series welcomed Drs. Leandra H. Hernández (Utah Valley University), Radhika Gajjala (Bowling Green State University), PhD Candidate Sujatha Subramanian (Ohio State University), and Dr. Angela Smith (University of Texas).

Starting the series off, Dr. Gajjala and Subramanian represented the work that was done collaboratively in “Online (Indian/South Asian) Digital Protest Publics Negotiating #POC, #BIPOC, and #anticaste” along with their co-authors, Sarah Ford and Viejeta Kumar. Gajjala’s work drew from digital ethnography from DIY culture and Indian feminist theories, and it started as a conversation as to what it means to be a brown woman in India where, as Dr. Gajjala put it, “We’re all brown.” They discussed the issues of using liberal feminist or ‘Lean In’ feminist frameworks that gave rise to questioning what it means to be a woman of colour, a brown woman, and colourism. Throughout this, Gajjala noticed there were no discussions of caste with the Indian and South Asian contexts.

Subramanian added that this project was about the idea of space. Nuanced conversations of caste were difficult to have within a North American context due to the limitations of the academic space. She stated, “We need to interrogate these bodies of knowledge that are considered to be dominant and the various forms of erasure around things like caste in North American academy.”

Dr. Hernández, represented the work of her and her co-author Dr. Sarah De Los Santos Upton in “Reproductive Justice and Activism Online: Digital Feminisms and Organizational/Activist Use of Social Networking Sites.” It focused on how reproductive activists, researchers, and supporters talked about reproductive health in online spaces. Hernández used the term “reproductive justice” to examine how media outlets covered and framed reproductive protests and events, but also how organizers of reproductive movements talked about it in digital spaces. “There is a transformative nature of intersectional feminist coalition-building to inspire change,” she said, “because it is often that organizations of reproductive justice are built upon the work by women of colour and how they are intentionally engaging with intersectional frameworks.” Activists intentionally used these frameworks to call to mind the real power imbalances that are occurring in reproductive spaces.

Dr. Smith represented the work of her and her collaborators, Ihudiya Finda Williams and Alexandra To, in the chapter “Racial Justice and Scholar-Activism.” As an African American Woman in technology, she operated in a space that was often held by cis, hetero, white men. She described herself as a design researcher with an interest in how tools are created and who was excluded in their design and research. She noted how the creation of technology often does not include black people even though they are prominent users and has led to a current digital divide.

Smith said, “Traditional methods of design like human-centered do not often take into account the lack of equity and access to digital resources or racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. We are seeing how the lack of diversity in who occupies these tech spaces affects what is made and produced in them.”

Questions and Answers 

After the panelists had presented, the moderators Drs. Shana MacDonald, Bri Wiens, Milena Radzikowska, and Michelle MacArthur asked the researchers a series of questions. When asked, “How do you understand the relationship between activism, feminisms, and digital culture?,” many of the presenters noted the difficulties of working in digital culture due to the rise of disinformation and the issues of privacy, censorship, and the potential of doxxing individuals when pulling information from public social media sites. On the topics of activism, the researchers highlighted the differences between online and in-person activism with Jerreat-Poole stating that digital activism is often devalued.

Panelists were then asked about the notion of solidarity as a framework. Suárez Val said it was an important tool to have when building and maintaining relationships within her research, and others echoed this sentiment as solidarity should be seen and treated as a local phenomenon within classrooms. 

And to end on a lighter note, panelists were asked what brings them joy? During the first COVID lockdown in early 2020, many talked about how they got into TikTok and the distinct types of videos and communities they would discover on the app. Others would get into other online activities like online pub quizzes and interacting with other communities online.

A companion collection to Networked Feminisms will be published in November 2022 titled Stories of Feminist Protest and Resistance: Digital Performative Assemblies.