Hashtag Publics: The Power and Politics of Networked Discourse Communities
Much has been written about the public sphere potential of blogs and microblogs (e.g. Siles, 2011; Papacharrissi & Oliveira, 2012; Bastos et al. 2013), as well as the political potential of online space in general (e.g. Bohman, 2004; DeLuca & Peeples, 2002; Downey & Fenton, 2003). In fact, since the dawn of the Internet age, discussion of the democratic potential of Internet-mediated space has been one of the major top-level conversations. And yet, a lot of that discussion gets mired in an orthodox Habermassian take on what we can—or should—consider a democratic public sphere, i.e., one where rational critical discourse on matters of societal importance (such as, most critically, the actions of the State) can take place by citizens stepping out of their private roles as interested individuals and into a public space where disinterested discussion and debate could occur.
While one can argue the merits of Habermas’s public sphere, this collection looks broader, widening its ambit to take in the other kinds of discussion and debate that are facilitated by networked technology. Taking our cue from critical public sphere theorists such as Nancy Fraser and Michael Warner, this collection is interested in those Other publics. More-or-less subaltern, more-or-less rational, more-or-less critical, and almost certainly partial, affective, interested and loud. It’s interested in angry publics. It’s interested in fringe publics. It’s interested in the kinds of publics that do politics in a way that is rough and emergent, flawed and messy, and ones in which new forms of collective power are being forged on the fly, and in the shadow of loftier mainstream spheres.
Specifically, this collection will investigate the publics of the hashtag, that piece of twice-repurposed typographical meaning, that rebel punctuation moving to establish itself in new regimes of discourse and communication—beyond its birth as a “pound” or “number” sign; beyond its digital neonacy as a symbol marking out IRC channels in the hay-day of early 90s chatroom enthusiasm (Zappavinga 791); beyond it’s re-appropriation as a ground-up search symbol in tweets; to how it has the potential to organize new structures of discussion, new “potential discourse communities” (Zappavinga 801) where in-line metadata acts as both text and metatext simultaneously (801), drawing entangled discourse together across technologies in a way that is both new and worthy of more sustained study.
Hashtags are hybrids in the taxonomy of types of information. They are both text and metatext, information and tag, pragmatic and metapragmatic speech. They are deictic, indexical—yet what they point to is themselves, their own dual role in ongoing discourse. Some have argued that when it comes to the online organization of information there is a tension of type between chronological and contextual modes (Benovitz 124). Chronological organization (for example, a thread) can sometimes fail to address the contextual embeddedness of a conversation; while contextual organization (for example, through a hyperlink) might be able to provide greater context (Benovitz 124), yet itself risks loosing a temporal aspect, how a topic has developed over time. The hashtag, functions in the space between the contextual and the chronological. It’s a node of continued context across media, conversations and locales, and yet it emerges temporally, self-developing through time, pointing to itself as it points to the other texts it marks as within its ambit.
In this way hashtags push the boundaries of specific discourses. In their development they are proposed and either sink back into the woodwork or rise to prominence through repetition, through use, through uptake (Bruns, 2011). The hashtag has the ability to mark the discursive boundaries of an event, and are in fact events themselves, striding that dual role as text and metatext.
Some previous studies have looked at the role of hashtags in relation to political discourse. Most of these are centred around analyzing how the hashtag operates on Twitter during major—but usually temporally short—political events. Studies of hashtags such as #Jan25 #Tahrir, #Egypt and #spill have been analyzed, for example, with respect to their role in Arab Spring protests and revolutions (e.g., Papacharissi & Oliveira, 2012) and the 2010 BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico (Bruns & Burgess 2012). On a short timescale, events and studies such as these demonstrate how the hashtag can work as a uniting thread of discourse that allows those who use it to feed into an ongoing and evolving conversation—even to contribute to a critical mass that can be a part of forcing change.
This collection will build on this foundational research but will also be interested in looking as political hashtags on longer time scales, and for events that are ongoing. It’s also interested in how these kinds of hashtag can spill beyond Twitter into other spaces of social networking—such as recent uptake of hashtag mechanics on Facebook—and even to other media spaces such as television and print.
Topics can include, but are not limited to:
## The role of hashtags in developing spot or ongoing protest movements (e.g., #Iran (Bastos, et al 2013), #occupy (Milberry, 2013).
## The way hashtags can work to assemble critical oppositional theory and politics (e.g., #RaceFail (Rambukkana, 2013), #feminism, #anticapitalism, #homophobia, #equality, #IdleNoMode).
## The use of hashtags to target specific news or political issues over longer time scales (e.g., #climatechange, #robocalls, #shitharperdid, #RobFord).
## The spill of hashtags (especially political hashtags) into other applications and media technologies such as Facebook, blogs, news site comment threads, Pinterest, Flickr, Television, Print.
## The use of hashtags as ways to link and bolter subaltern publics and the identities and communities therein (e.g., #polyamory, #trans*, #desi, #goth, #metal, #comiccon, #fanfiction, #slash).
## The use of hashtags to create both physical and virtual common spaces through practices such as live-tweeting conferences, protests, events, live news, etc.
## Papers focusing on the deep theory of the hashtag along political and public sphere dimensions, especially in relation to topics such as affect and anger, entanglement and networks, virtual/actual space and hashtags as events.
## Papers focusing on the methodologies of researching the hashtag that use political or subcultural examples as case studies.
The goal is to assemble a collection of exemplary abstracts and then approach some top-tier academic publishers with social media studies/technology studies/digital studies collections.
If interested, please send a 750-word abstract, collection of keywords and a 150-word bio to the editor, Dr. Nathan Rambukkana firstname.lastname@example.org, by 30 Nov. 2013. Drafts will be due 1 June 2014 and final versions 1 Dec. 2014. Please also email Nathan at the above address if you have any questions and feel free to repost this CFP to your networks.