The Internet is making activism more difficult to analyze. It’s hard to know who initiated a digital action. First, people can initiate many activism tactics pseudonymously and anonymously, whether they are posting a video, writing a blog post, or tweeting.
But the problem goes deeper.
The problem of pseudonymity assumes that the individual or group who initiated the action has been identified, but in the world of viral dissemination, “patient zero” may be more difficult to locate. When the piece of content is a meme – an idea expressed through a range of separate pieces of content – the problem of tracking viral growth becomes even more complex.
The recent “binders full of women”meme and the reappropriation of#SignsYoKidIsGay on Twitter are interesting case studies for delving into this question of how we determine who started the “digital fire” of a viral meme and whether the idea of an action initiator even has meaning anymore.
It is possible, through network analysis, to locate the first people who produced a piece of public digital satire of “women in binders.” But is this person really the initiator of the surge of content creation and discourse that leapt from platform to platform and medium to medium, from the world of atoms to the world of bits and back again? Even if one were to be more specific and call the initiator of “binders full of women”the earliest person to create a piece of highly-linked content, this seems a bit reductive.
The “binders full of women” meme was created by the people of the Internet, it was a collective creation. Though there was an individual who startedbindersfullofwomen.tumblr.com, that photoblog had effect because other individual submitted images to it. Likewise there was an individual who wrote the first satirical Amazon binder review, but others added similar reviews andamplified the action. Likewise Tiffani Ricci pushed the meme back into the world of atoms by organizing a women in binders protest (left) in front of the Ohio Republican Party headquarters. Was she following the existing meme or initiating something new? She was doing both.
#SignsYoKidIsGayis a methodologically easier to analyze since it is occurred on a single platform which makes its content accessible (for a fee) as machine-readable data. However, even when someone identifies the first person to “flip the script” and turn a hashtag of homophobia into a hashtag of exquisite humanism (see below), that action only had cultural impact because of the many individual participants that both added their own tweets and amplified the action. Unlike a tree falling in the forest, a meme only exists if it is amplified.
The underlying problem is the tautology of online activism initiated by previously low-influence individuals: it is only an action if people participate. The initiator has little real impact until he or she is joined by co-creators. All respect to Billy Joel, but so far as the viral meme fire goes, we did start it, collectively.
Moving forward, we are going to see activism with less and less distinction between initiator and supporter, and without a clear beginning and end. Identifying a meaningful geographic location for digital action is already difficult. How will be study this new andamorphousform of activism? That’s a question that I am interested in answering.