This post is authored by Sugandha Sehgal who is a Ph.D. scholar at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University
My current project is located against the larger backdrop of a contemporary critique of beauty culture. I look at a select few aesthetic and social practices on digital networking sites for a critical investigation of gendered representation online. Facebook and Instagram are the two social networking sites, heavily image based that I have chosen as field sites for my research. However, a research project on feminist digital cultures of non-normative femininity poses challenges of a peculiar kind. In this post, I wish to briefly share my first hand experiences as a researcher studying social media photography centered on the female body. This note is part of an ongoing web discussion on a session conducted during the Internet Researchers Conference, held in Bangalore in March 2017. The session was very aptly called selfies from the field, encouraging the discussants to share their experiential observations on conducting research in a rapidly shifting, new and dynamic field of digital humanities.
I pitch my critical engagement with what I call the aesthetics and politics of ugliness against the larger theoretical backdrop of normative beauty culture. A recent social media campaign called Gender Pages has caught my attention lately while browsing through Facebook one day. This project asks its contributors to submit photographs of themselves in which they transgress normative gender norms. This is a social media campaign on transgressive female bodies. Randomly browsing through the Facebook page of the project, I discovered certain photographs of young, spirited digital female users, which provocatively challenged gender norms related to body hair, type, fluids etc. This project forced me to further investigate the larger implications of social media ‘counterpublics’ in contemporary digital culture.
The first consideration in a project of this kind was formal in nature. I set out to explore in greater detail the emerging research landscape on social media. Certain characteristics of the chosen field site such as the traceability, replicability and searchability of social media data set the larger contours of my research. The architectural features of social media dictated larger questions of methodological concern. My first concern, which I explicitly set out in my paper presentation during the session, was that of erasure of data. Loss of data becomes a central concern as there are constant erasures /content takedowns of controversial visual material regularly on these social networking sites. How does a researcher locate/pin down such larger cultural erasures? It becomes very difficult for a researcher to negotiate with the larger ‘regulatory landscape of social media.’
The digital nature of the chosen field sites posits challenges of a peculiar kind to the researcher. The uniqueness of social media, as field of research enquiry lies essentially in its structural features, dynamics, affordances and limitations. Current critical scholarship has commented extensively on social networking sites as ‘quasi public spheres.’(York, 2014) As the modern day version of the traditional Haebermasian public sphere, a social networking site (SNS) like Facebook becomes a crucial site for the scripting of unofficial, alternative discourses on femininity. Moreover, the ‘architecture’ of these sites allows them to function as, what Danah Boyd in her seminal work ‘Affordances, Dynamics and Implications of Networked Publics’ calls ‘complicated counterpublics.’ Boyd further argues that the ‘interactivity’ and ‘bi-directionality’ of social media further complicates notions of ‘publicness’ in a digital culture.
The biggest methodological challenge in studying IMI’s (Internet mediated interactions) then lies in the reliable collection of web content. Highly polemical, intensely topical and essentially ephemeral, social media content on contemporary debates on gender (or any other issue alike) lacks the archive. Archiving practices become the need of the hour to ensure that ‘social media database’ remains available for scholarly research in the future. Moreover, the ‘searchable’ and reproducible capacities of social media content make it vast and diffused in nature, and therefore unmanageable.
The session ‘selfiesfromthefield’ offered immense scope for a tightly controlled and thematically unified discussion on various challenges faced by young academic scholars working on various aspects of Internet society. Both brief formal presentations as well as casual conversations with colleagues gave me useful insights into the larger debates concerning the field.
Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth. How images of beauty are used against women. Harper Collins: New York, 1991
Boyd, Dannah. “Social network sites as networked publics : Affordances, Dynamics and Implications.” Papacharissi, Zizi. Ed A Networked self :, Community and culture on social network sites. Routledge : New York, 2011
Trottier, Daniel. Social media as surveillance: Rethinking visibility in a converging world. Ashgate Publishing company : USA, 2011
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CITAPP and IIIT Bangalore.