The rise of the internet has radically changed the way we learn, interact, work and play. However, in recent years, social media has also become a fundamental part of social interaction, public discourse, and even political participation. Social movements and political campaigns are increasingly harnessing the power of participatory media, to both engage and mobilise participants, but also to build communities both online and offline. The Women’s March, which took place earlier this year, is one such example that highlights how audiences are using old and new forms of intervention to redefine activism.
On the 21st of January 2017, over five million people around the globe came together as part of an unprecedented protest event. Sparked in reaction to President Trump’s inauguration, the Women’s March began with a Facebook invite for just 40 friends, but quickly grew into a global event, addressing a plethora of social, political and environmental issues.
In addition to its staggering size, the use of participatory media before, during and after the Women’s March is of both interest and significance to media studies. Not only did the movement use social media as a tool for organising and broadcasting, but various forms of grassroots media were also employed to engage individuals and build a collective identity.
Over a decade ago, Jenkins (2006) introduced the notion of “convergence culture”, which defines a cultural shift from the distribution of media, to the circulation of content across media systems, economies and national borders. Convergence in this sense also marks the transformation of passive media audiences into active consumers and producers.
Another significant term presented by Jenkins is the idea of “participatory culture”, which concerns more than just active participants and involves being a part of a shared practice and community (Jenkins et al 2016). Participatory cultures are networks of technologically linked individuals that have the following features: low barriers to artistic expression and engagement, strong support for creating and sharing content, informal mentorship whereby knowledge and experience is passed on, the belief that individual contributions matter, and the feeling of social connection with one another (Jenkins et al 2006, p. 3).
When he first introduced these ideas to the world, Jenkins argued that the rise of convergence and participatory culture was on the precipice of fundamentally reorganising social and media relations. Among other examples, the Women’s March confirms his prediction: “None of us can know everything; each of us knows something; and we can put the pieces together if we pool our resources and combine our skills. Collective intelligence can be seen as an alternative source of media power. We are learning how to use that power through our day-to-day interactions within convergence culture. Right now, we are mostly using this collective power through our recreational life, but soon we will be deploying those skills for more ‘serious’ purposes” (Jenkins 2006, p. 3).
Jenkins, Ito & boyd (2016) also argue that participatory culture embraces diversity and democracy through social interaction. This is particularly relevant to the Women’s March, as the organisers of the movement were focused on inclusivity and intersectionality, and even Trump supported the democratic nature of the movement.
Drawing from the theoretical definitions of convergence and participatory culture, “participatory media” can be understood as the new media environment that is inherently more interactive, social, collaborative and fluid. Through participatory media, citizens are no longer passive consumers, instead they are “enabled to challenge discourses, share alternative perspectives and publish their own opinions” (Loader & Mercea 2011, p. 759).
While Jenkins does not view technology as being participatory - he makes a distinction between participatory culture and interactive technologies - other media commentators have praised the democratic capacity of digital media platforms, asserting that they can foster participation in political discussion and enable social change (Cohen & Kahne 2011; Jenkins et al 2016, p. 11; Loader & Mercea 2011; Poell & van Dijck 2015).
Participatory culture is undoubtedly facilitated by the rise of new media technologies however, it expands beyond the technological world, and consequently the Women’s March is best conceptualised as a combination of offline and online processes. The following discussion will explore the role of media in participatory culture, highlighting how the movement and its participants employed various forms of physical and digital media to build a community and facilitate political involvement.
Social media can be particularly empowering for bottom-up movements, who rely on networks to develop a collective identity. From its conception, the Women’s March had a significant relationship with social media, and various platforms helped the movement to grow into the biggest mass mobilisation in history. Social media allowed participants to find each other, plan and organise events, gain attention, and spread the call to action.
The idea for the movement initially began when Teresa Shook, a retired attorney and grandmother from Hawaii, started a Facebook event. Fuelled by her frustration at Trump’s victory, she proposed a march on Washington to her own network of friends. Fast forward 24-hours, and over 100,000 people had RSVP’d. Similar initiatives emerged on social media at the same time, and eventually they all merged into one collective known as the Women’s March. In an interview with Wired Magazine, Jenna Arnold, an advisor to the march, acknowledged the value of social media, saying: “it would be hard to say that we would have had this kind of success without an existing platform like Facebook”. Less than one year later, the collective now has over 750,000 likes on Facebook, 525,000 followers on Twitter, and a community of 660,000 users on Instagram.
Social media was highly effective in spreading news of the protest among peer groups and networks. Following the election result in the US, many people around the world were upset and angry, and as a result, connected with the movement’s mission on an emotional level. Karen North, from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, made an interesting comment on social media following the event in Washington: “Social media has entirely changed the organizing landscape. It is a way to ask people to join with friends and with like-minded people and promote a sense of belonging. Social media allows us to organize people in a manner that feels like a personal invitation and also in a manner that suggests a groundswell of support and passion about a cause”.
The rise of participatory media has seen a change in the distribution of media power. This was clearly demonstrated by the early stages of the Women’s March, which gained momentum using social networks both online and offline, attracting attention from major news sources only after it had grown to phenomenal size (Farhi 2017). Poell & van Djick (2015) argue that grassroots movements no longer rely on the mass media to grant or refuse visibility, and instead are able to by-pass traditional sources and control their own narrative. Similarly, civil rights leader Rashad Robinson has said that social media “levels the playing field”, giving people the ability to make their voices heard against powerful entities.
Protest movements that engage with participatory media are also advantageous as they extend involvement beyond one location and one time-zone. While the primary event was a march on Washington, more than 600 sister marches were simultaneously coordinated around the world. Zuckerman asserts that that participatory media technologies “[have] become a routine part of protest movements, opening participation in protests far beyond those physically present” (Zuckerman forthcoming, in Jenkins et al 2016, p. 5). The Women’s March was embraced by communities around the world, in part because if its accessibility. People were able to join the conversation by physically attending the marches, using various hashtags, sharing social media posts, and even knitting pussyhats (but more on that later).
In addition to utilising popular platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, the Women’s March collective built an app to facilitate the protest event in Washington. With over 172,000 downloads in the week before the march, the use of this medium highlights how social movements are embracing emerging technologies. The app was an important resource, providing protestors with access to live updates, the schedule of speakers and different events happening around the city, but it also facilitated conversation and interaction – users could post statuses, share images and connect with other people at the event. The interactive nature of such platforms has important implications for how individuals and communities engage with political issues, and encourage political involvement on a global scale.
The initial grassroots movements that fed into the Women’s March were largely concerned with Trump’s demeaning attitude towards women, and involved political issues such as equal pay, childcare and abortion rights. However, as the protest grew in size, it expanded to include other victims of Trump’s hate speech and a wealth of political issues.
Cohen & Kahne (2011, p. 3) refer to the idea of “participatory politics” to describe the use of media to engage in political discussion. They found that 41 percent of young Americans engage in a least one form of participatory politics, by “using new digital media to express their thoughts about political issues, campaigns, and politicians” (Cohen & Kahne 2011, p. 4). Jenkins et al (2016) also refer to notion of participatory politics, defining it as the coalescence of participatory culture and political involvement: “where political change is prompted through social and cultural mechanisms rather than through established political institutions, and where citizens see themselves as capable of expressing their political concerns – often through the production and circulation of media” (Jenkins et al 2016, p. 2). In the context of the Women’s March, participants performed participatory politics by sharing their opinions and involvement in the march on social media.
Social media is often criticised for being a shallow form of political participation, however it is crucial to consider the context of such behaviour. For some individuals, sharing their involvement in the protest would have seemed effortless, however for others, broadcasting their political views to the public would have been a significant achievement. Jenkins (2006, p. 222) also discusses this factor, and argues that sharing content online is “no more and no less a political act than handing [out] a campaign brochure or a bumper sticker”.
While social media is an important example to look at, participatory politics is not limited to digital media; like participatory culture, it has the potential to be produced both online and offline. Beyond Twitter threads and Instagram hashtags, there were alternative modes of communication surrounding the Women’s March that also interact with the notion of participatory politics.
Nina Donovan’s poem Nasty Woman was written in response to Trump calling Clinton a “nasty woman” on election night. However, the poem also (unintentionally) encapsulated the female resistance that was powering the Women’s March, addressing topics such as the US voting system, the wage gap, the tampon tax, and systemic racism. It’s arguably political poetry, and demonstrates political involvement in an offline context. While the poem is a stand alone act of political protest, it also gained noteworthy attention via social media and was later performed by actress Ashley Judd at the march in Washington. Consequently, Donovan’s poem is a multifaceted example of participatory politics, existing as spoken word, written text and online video, in addition to being continuously reproduced through participatory media.
From another perspective, Milan (2015) argues that social media makes visible the active process of building collective identity. She uses the notion of “cloud protesting” as a way to rethink collective action in the age of social media, which has become flexible, real-time and largely crowd-controlled (Milan 2015, p. 889). According to Milan, social media is involved in the politics of visibility in four key ways: when participants join the social action, they make the movement visible; social media enables participants to appeal to one other and reinforce collective identity; the issue or movement can be constantly reproduced in news feeds, stretching the duration and lifecycle of mobilisation; and finally, the reproduction of content and messaging promotes group solidarity (Milan 2015, p. 896). While the Women’s March in its entirety is an example of cloud protesting, one specific example of Milan’s hypothesis is #WhyIMarch. This hashtag was used by protesters to share the reason why they joined the movement, and it engages with both participatory politics and cloud protesting. Apart from increasing the visibility of the protest, the act of sharing an image also reinforced the collective identity of the movement. Although individual protestors stood for a vast array of issues, participatory media helped to build, and make visible the process of building, a united, cohesive community.
The media environment today is characterised by a perpetual flow of visual imagery. While our exposure to visual content is at an all-time high, images and video still have a strong impact with audiences. Studies have found that tweets with images receive up to 150% more retweets, and in 2017, 74% of all internet traffic will be comprised of video (Mawhinney 2017). Jenkins (2011) maintains that the visual culture of contemporary protest movements “has the homemade qualities of the DIY movements of the past, the high-tech qualities of digital activism, and the playful engagement of fan activism” (Jenkins 2011). This is particularly relevant to participatory media surrounding the Women’s March, which engaged with both new and old forms of crafts, harnessed the value of imagery in the digital community, and drew on elements of popular culture to engage with political issues.
The most prominent example of visual imagery in contemporary social and political movements, is the use of protest signs. Protest signs have become sharper, meaner and funnier, and moreover, they hold intrinsic value long after the marchers have gone home (Gibson 2017). Images of protest signs at the Women’s March not only documented the event, but were an important asset in and of themselves. While many signs were direct and serious, a significant proportion made use of both humour and popular culture, which in turn helped to increase engagement.
Caron (2015) argues that humour and satire can function as a critique of society, while also allowing people to express their frustrations. At the Women’s March, many protestors held signs that satirised Trump, turning his own words against him and mocking his appearance. In doing so, they were arguably being critical of the new POTUS, while legitimising their anger and distress. By making their signs amusing in this way, participants also made the movement accessible to the wider public.
In addition to humour, protest signs referenced and remixed popular culture to share political messages. Jenkins et al (2013, p. 222) maintain that activist groups create powerful imagery by “appropriating and transforming elements from a larger shared cultural mythology which people feel an immediate emotional connection with and have an impulse to share”. A significant number of protest signs at the Women’s March adopted language from popular culture in order to resonate with others, and act as entry point for political participation.
Another significant example of visual imagery at the Women’s March was the iconic pussyhat. The Pussyhat Project was a significant initiative for three reasons, all of which are connected to the underlying principles of participatory media. First and foremost, the project intended to provide a unique and collective visual statement for the movement, bringing together the diverse group of people involved in the march. Secondly, the hats themselves were designed to hold symbolic value, in an attempt to reclaim the word “pussy” as an empowering term, and in a targeted response to Trump’s infamous words: “grab ‘em by the pussy”. This subversion of content, in a creative and interactive way, is a prime example of how participatory media is reliant on active and critical audiences. Furthermore, the project aimed to bring people together, encouraging participants to either knit a hat for themselves, or to make hats for the marchers. By the end of December, an estimated 60,000 hats were sent to Washington from all around the world. The global success of the project was largely due to social media, which quickly and effectively circulated information about the hats. Even today, the knitting template, and images of people wearing the hats, continue to move through online networks, highlighting the fluid nature of content.
The strong visual culture of the Women’s March – represented here through both protest signs and pussyhats – reinforces the fundamental characteristics of both convergence culture and participatory media. Individuals are evidently active in the both cultural and media landscapes, continuously creating and sharing content, and interacting with one another on a global scale.
Activism in the digital age is often criticised for its inability to produce meaningful change: “a crucial question is whether such instances of solidarity or togetherness can eventually translate into more durable networks and communities that provide the basis for political contestation in the long run” (Poell & van Djick 20115, p. 532). However, the Women’s March is a leading example of how contemporary political protest can be a catalyst for more specific and consequential action.
In response to Trump’s election, people around the world made use of both old and new modes of media, to contribute to meaningful political discussion, but also to inspire political action: “Some will run for office. Some will register new voters. Some will badger their representatives. Some will speak up where they had previously been silent”. Milan (2015, p. 895) insists that “choreographers” are imperative to constructing the space within which collective action can unfold. In this this way, the organisers behind the Women’s March were crucial to both the success of the protest, as well as the movement’s continued presence in the political sphere. They strategically partnered with other organisations such as Planned Parenthood to “protect the progress” of the march, and to this day remain active on social media, drawing attention to issues, and sharing opportunities to get involved.
The preceding examples highlight how members of the Women’s March actively engaged with social, collaborative and fluid forms of media, and moreover, how online activism can contribute to meaningful political resistance. By examining the Women’s March as an example of contemporary media intervention, we can gain valuable insight into the role of participatory media today. However, it is important to note that the media landscape is in a constant state of transformation, influenced by the evolution of media technologies and the changing way that audiences interact with them. To refer once again to the wise words of Henry Jenkins: “We are entering an era of prolonged transition and transformation in the way media operates” (2006, p. 23). The role of participatory media today, will not be the same tomorrow, and so the only way to know the future of this phenomenon, is to watch this space.
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