Reflections on the First Ten Days

There are few processes in human life that are more fascinating to explore than the expansion of ideas and concepts over time as a result of research and brainstorming. We are gifted as animals with the innate ability to recognize the patterns that exist around us and it’s refreshing to witness this process occur, especially from a first-person perspective.

Since initiating an academic exploration into our current networked social movements only ten days ago, many ideas have bloomed and evolved, including a wide range of theories, research plans, and expectations of what will be found. I have been collecting a plethora of academic research which will be useful for analyzing the current mobilizations for social and economic justice in America, including frame alignment processes studied by Snow, Benford, and other colleagues, the networked theory of power presented in “Communication Power”, and “Networks of Hope and Outrage” by Manuel Castells, the resource mobilization perspective popularized by Gamson in “The Strategy of Social Protest”, and the theory of networked publics formulated in the research of danah boyd. While resource mobilization theory and frame alignment provide two completely different methods for studying the processes of new social movements, their interrelations must be understood for better analyzing how offline and online action coexist to build movements like 15 Now in Seattle.

How these sources will be used in the context of my exploration hasn’t yet been precisely pinpointed at this early stage, but these diverse theoretical frameworks certainly provide a backdrop for my research, which strives to combine ethnographic data from protests in urban space, interviews with activists about the relationship between their online and offline action, and a content analysis of news articles, tweets, and other digital content. My goal is to provide insight on two specific processes of social movements: mobilization and radicalization. While these loaded terms have undoubtedly been recoded through wide academic usage, I wish to provide a simple, basic operationalization:

Mobilization refers to the process in which members are recruited and messages are spread to potential nodes through online and offline network diffusion.

Radicalization refers to the process of solidifying the connections between nodes in the activist network, strengthening their beliefs while reinforcing a feeling of a communal identity, as well as the need for both offline and online participation to accomplish goals.

These processes are mutually inclusive, as there are many actions and events which contribute to both mobilization and radicalization, depending on the network position of the nodes involved. For instance, a tweet which shares a picture from 15 Now’s Martin Luther King day march, marked with the #MLKDay hashtag, might radicalize members of the movement network, as the picture is evidence which reinforces their belief that others share their views and will take action on behalf of the goal, thus motivating activists viewing the image to become involved in their own actions, or more strongly support other events, even if outside the Seattle area. Meanwhile, if the content reaches non-activist networks, those members might view the images as proof that the fight for $15 per hour is supported by members of the public and is urgent enough to facilitate participation and action in physical urban space. Thus, the tweet could mobilize them to join or support the movement in either online or offline public spheres.

One method which will provide insight into how Seattle’s fight for a $15 minimum wage traversed social networks to grow and achieve victory in local governmental reform, is to study the movement’s growth on Twitter, starting from #OccupySeattle in 2011, strengthening during the #FightFor15, which included the #829Strike, #FastFoodGlobal, and other mass protests which aimed to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and culminating with the city council victory of Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant and #15Now, her organization which fought for change in Seattle and is now spreading across the country as we speak. What can we learn from analyzing the evolution of the movement in the context of this horizontal, multimodal medium, and how do these processes link to other online action on blogs, and petitions, as well as offline action in street protests, rallies, public forums, and debates?

I have collected, analyzed, and coded a fairly large amount of Twitter data within these last ten days. Here is a snapshot of the digital artifacts which I have collected in this short time period:

  1. All tweets posted by 15 Now and Socialist Alternative groups throughout the country, and Kshama Sawant.
  2. The #OccupySeattle Top Tweet history since 2011
  3. the #FastFoodGlobal, #829Strike, and #WalmartStrike full tweet histories from the day of the coordinated actions as well as a few days before and after the events took place.
  4. #15Now Top Tweets in Dec 2013 – May 2014, which is the full length of hashtag usage for Seattle’s cause.
  5. “#FightFor15 seattle” Top Tweets for June 2013 – May 2014, which is the full length of hashtag usage, as the #FightFor15 is a newer movement.

 

While this is certainly an adequate starting point for my exploration, there are a few further datasets which would be useful to include:

  1. #FastFoodForward and #FightFor15 Top Tweet histories for period of the movement, these would provide deeper context of how Twitter is used by the larger movement outside Seattle.
  2. #15Now full tweet histories, to compare to Top Tweet history and determine how dynamics change between Top Tweet and full tweet histories.
  3. Twitter content of other Seattle city council members and politicians, which provides a snapshot of how they use Twitter themselves, either similarly or different than Kshama Sawant.

So far, a minor analysis of the #15Now and “#FightFor15 Seattle” datasets have been performed, which is comprised of a list of all twitter participants (nodes), their presence (mentions and retweets), and their range of participation. As the exploration goes deeper, I expect to separate the presence data into their respective categories to gain further insight. Additionally, there is a list of all hashtags used and their frequency, number of links, and whether they are negative, positive, or neutral. As I dig deeper, I expect this codification to become more complex, and will track how these codewords change meaning depending on their usage.

Some questions to keep in mind are:

Who is most involved in using a particular hashtag? How does this mirror or contradict offline social organization?

How can we characterize different types of tweets in contributing to the movement? Do they help mobilize, radicalize, or contribute to both processes? Is it even necessary to delineate between mobilization and radicalization?

What types of people and organizations are participating? How do the contextual meanings of their tweets differ depending on the role they play in the greater movement?

How are offline events covered by social media participants? What is the interplay between hierarchal broadcast mass media and horizontal multicast citizen media?

How do retweeting and hashtag combinations, like using #FightFor15 and #FastFoodForward in a message which features #15Now, help mobilize the movement as well as facilitate solidarity among geographically dispersed mobilizations with a common goal?

These are only a few of the questions which are bouncing around my mind as I continue to dig deeper into contemporary social action.

In my next post, I will outline my expectations and hypothesis regarding what shining the spotlight on Twitter will uncover. Stay tuned and please send all feedback and suggestions to davidianrobin@gmail.com

 

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