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DOI: 10.1177/2056305119836778
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Article
Introduction
On 2 July 2015, volunteer moderators of over 2,200 “subreddit” communities on the social news platform reddit effectively went on strike. Moderators disabled their subreddits,
preventing millions of subscribers from accessing basic parts
of the reddit website. The “reddit blackout,” as it became
known, choked the company from advertising revenue and
forced reddit to negotiate over moderators’ digital working
conditions. The company, already struggling with pressure
from racist and bullying groups that it had recently banned,
conceded to moderator demands within hours. Management
allocated resources to moderator needs, CEO Ellen Pao
resigned 1week later, and within 2months, the company had
hired its first Chief Technical Officer, partly to improve the
platform’s moderation software (Olanoff, 2015).
Even as the blackout surfaced anxieties about the responsibilities of digital platforms to their volunteer workers, it
also led many to question the legitimacy of moderators’ governance role. Some moderators were censured or even
ejected by their subreddits for joining the blackout without
consulting their communities. Conversely, many moderators
were pressured to join the blackout through subreddit-wide
votes and waves of private messages. Three weeks later, in
The New York Times magazine article, on the word “moderator,” Adrian Chen (2015) wrote,
The moderator class has become so detached from its mediating
role at Reddit that it no longer functions as a means of creating
a harmonious community, let alone a profitable business. It has
become an end in itself—a sort of moderatocracy.
Are these moderators unpaid workers whose emotional
labor is exploited by platforms, are they facilitator citizens
upholding society’s collective communications, or are they
oligarchs who coordinate to rule our online lives with limited
accountability? Chen struggles to reconcile these views for
good reason. When making sense of the work of moderation,
scholars have tended to think primarily in one of three ways.
Scholarship on digital labor describes moderation as
unwaged labor for commercial interests or free labor in peer
production communities like Wikipedia (Menking &
Erickson, 2015; Postigo, 2003; Terranova, 2000). Legal theorists and computer scientists describe moderators as civic
leaders of online communities who build their own public
spheres (Kelty, 2005); much of this scholarship outlines
836778SMSXXX10.1177/2056305119836778Social Media <span class=”symbol” cstyle=”Mathematical”>+</span> SocietyMatias
research-article20192019
Princeton University, USA
Corresponding Author:
J. Nathan Matias, Center for Information Technology Policy and
Department of Psychology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08540,
USA.
Email: [email protected]
The Civic Labor of
Volunteer Moderators Online
J. Nathan Matias
Abstract
Volunteer moderators create, support, and control public discourse for millions of people online, even as moderators’
uncompensated labor upholds platform funding models. What is the meaning of this work and who is it for? In this article,
I examine the meanings of volunteer moderation on the social news platform reddit. Scholarship on volunteer moderation
has viewed this work separately as digital labor for platforms, civic participation in communities, or oligarchy among other
moderators. In mixed-methods research sampled from over 52,000 subreddit communities and in over a dozen interviews,
I show how moderators adopt all of these frames as they develop and re-develop everyday meanings of moderation—facing
the platform, their communities, and other moderators alike. I also show how this civic notion of digital labor brings clarity to
a strike by moderators in July 2015. Volunteer governance remains a common approach to managing social relations, conflict,
and civil liberties online. Our ability to see how communities negotiate the meaning of moderation will shape our capacity to
address digital governance as a society.
Keywords
online behavior, digital labor, Internet governance, collective action, content moderation
2 Social Media + Society
general strategies to structure governance work for fair and
functional communities at scale (Butler, Sproull, Kiesler, &
Kraut, 2002; Grimmelmann, 2015). A third conversation
draws from the sociology of participation to consider the
social structures of those who acquire and exercise moderation power, finding common tendencies toward oligarchy
that may be necessary for the survival of online communities
(Shaw & Hill, 2014; Zhu, Kraut, & Kittur, 2014).
Even as scholars debate the nature of moderation work,
online communities routinely define what it means to be a
moderator in everyday settings: they dispute over moderator
decisions, recruit new moderators, participate in elections,
investigate corruption, offer mentorship, and share peer support. In their everyday work, moderators must satisfy and
explain themselves to all three parties identified in previous
research, sometimes simultaneously: the platform, their
communities, and their fellow moderators. The platform
operators must be satisfied that a moderator is appropriately
productive, communities must accept the legitimacy of a
moderator’s governance, and other moderators must also
trust and support the moderator throughout their work.
Academic views of moderation work typically attend to
only one of these stakeholders at a time. Digital labor
research on the role of moderation in a “profitable business”
attends to the relationship between moderation work and
platform operators. Scholarship on the civic outcomes of
moderation emphasizes the relationship of moderators with
the publics they govern. Finally, studies on moderator social
structures draw attention to the ties and obligations of moderators to each other.
The everyday work of defining volunteer moderation is
central to the legitimacy and power of online governance;
however, scholars choose to describe it. Consider, for example, the issue of compensation. Since moderators create and
enact policy on acceptable speech, their work fundamentally
shapes our digitally mediated social and political lives.
Moderators respond to conflict and harassment online, risks
that 40% of American adults report experiencing (Duggan,
2014). This valuable work is costly. Professional services
reportedly charged between US$4 and US$25 cents per comment in 2014 (Isaf, 2014). In 2008, America Online (AOL)
community leaders settled a class action lawsuit over unpaid
wages for US$15 million (Kirchner, 2011). In recent years,
many news organizations have disabled public discussions,
unable to afford moderation costs (Gupta, 2016).
Although platforms could afford moderation costs, the
legitimacy of moderation is also affected by how communities interpret compensation models. On reddit, many communities see paid moderation as corruption, forcing out
moderators accused of receiving compensation or favors in
exchange for their labor (Martinez, 2013). Because moderation is governance as well as labor, its legitimacy depends on
the beliefs of people other than the moderators who create
and enforce policies. Consequently, the processes that shape
the meaning of moderation also define its power.
In this article, I examine how the meaning of moderation
is defined in the everyday boundary work carried out by volunteer moderators on reddit as they negotiate the idea of
moderation. Boundary work, as described by Gieryn, is discursive activity that attempts to define the boundaries of a
profession or field, to support claims to authority and
resources (Gieryn, 1983). These boundaries are “drawn and
redrawn in flexible, historically changing and sometimes
ambiguous ways” that reflect the ambivalences and strains
within a given institution. In online platforms such as reddit,
volunteer moderators define and redefine what it means to be
a moderator in conversation with platform operators, their
communities, and other moderators. To foreground the ways
that moderation is defined with all three parties, I introduce
the idea of “civic labor” to describe authority that is defined
through negotiations with these commercial, civic, and peer
stakeholders.
Moderation Work
While online platforms do pay some people to enact their
content policies (Gillespie, 2018; Roberts, 2016), volunteer
moderators have played a fundamental role in social life
online for over 40years. Many online social systems fundamentally rely on volunteers, from librarians in 1970s
Berkeley looking after local message-boards (Bruckman,
1998) to today’s Facebook group administrators (Kushin &
Kitchener, 2009), Wikipedia arbitrators (Menking &
Erickson, 2015), and reddit moderators. Although not all
work of fostering community is carried out by designated
moderators, people in these formal positions are founders,
maintainers, content producers, promoters, policymakers,
and enforcers of policy across the social Internet (Butler
et al., 2002). On many platforms, moderators also manage
autonomous and semi-autonomous moderation software that
work alongside them (Geiger & Ribes, 2010).
By delegating policy and governance power to moderators, platform operators reduce labor costs and limit their
regulatory liability for conduct on their service while also
positioning themselves as champions of free expression and
cultural generativity (Gillespie, 2010). This governance
work invites public scrutiny, which draws platforms into
debates about their responses to flagged material (Crawford
& Gillespie, 2014). However, when platforms delegate policy-making to their users, that scrutiny is faced instead by
moderators, whose labor nonetheless upholds a platform’s
economic model.
On reddit, the evolution of moderation followed this longer 40-year pattern. When reddit’s creators founded it in
2005 to be “the front page of the Internet,” they developed an
infrastructure for sharing and promoting highly voted posts a
single, algorithmically curated page. After these algorithms
regularly promoted pornography and other complicated, possibly illegal material, the platform created an alternative
algorithmic space for “Not Safe For Work”(NSFW) material,
Matias 3
calling it a “subreddit” 1month later (Huffman, 2006). Over
the next 2years, the company started dozens of new subreddits, mostly to separate conversations in different languages.
In January 2008, after its acquisition by Condé Nast and
10months after introducing advertising, the company
launched “user-controlled subreddits.” Before then, users
could join official company subreddits, reporting spam and
abuse directly to the company through a flagging system.
Now they could create their own public and private subreddits, taking action themselves to “remove posts and ban
users” (Huffman, 2007, 2008). By giving communities delegated power to define their own governance, reddit was positioning itself as a platform and disclaiming responsibility for
how its users behaved.
Seven years later, reddit was one of the largest social platforms online. In the month before the reddit blackout, the
company received over 160 million visitors,1
roughly half of
the number of active Twitter users in the same period.2
To
maintain social relations at that scale, reddit relied on nearly
150,000 moderator roles3
for over 52,000 monthly active
subreddits.
Moderation as Free Labor in the Social Factory of
Internet Platforms
Digital labor scholarship on the work of moderators foregrounds their relationship with online platforms: theorizing
the role of moderators’ volunteer work within platform business models. Among examples in open source and free culture, this scholarship also frequently refers to labor organizing
by community leaders (essentially moderators) of AOL chat
rooms and other communities in the 1990s. Initially eager to
offer moderation work in exchange for discounts, credit, and
other perks, some of the 14,000 “community leads” came to
see their work as unpaid labor. Moderators filed a class
action lawsuit in 1999, prompting an inconclusive US
Department of Labor investigation. The community leaders
eventually won US$15million from AOL in a 2008 settlement (Kirchner, 2011; Postigo, 2009).
In an analysis of labor organizing by AOL moderators,
Terranova points out that this freely given labor comprises an
arrangement where people carry out self-directed cultural
and social work that produces the value extracted by platforms. For Terranova, the “free labor” of platform production is something that is both “not financially rewarded [by
platforms] and willingly given [by users]” (Terranova, 2000).
In a series of articles on the AOL lawsuit, Postigo explores
the nature of the delicate symbiosis between platforms and
moderators by observing the factors that led this arrangement to collapse. Postigo observes that the gift of volunteer
time by AOL moderators was inspired by the “early Internet
community spirit” found in “hacker history” and in “the academic, collaborative efforts that shaped the Internet” in the
1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Yet some also took on the role to
grow their technical skills or gain the discounts initially
offered to volunteers. As AOL grew, the company began to
formalize and control the relationship with their community
leaders through communications, software, and compensation structures. No longer allowed the autonomy to imagine
themselves as cultural gift-givers, the community leaders reimagined themselves as mistreated employees and sued the
company. Postigo describes their labor organizing as an
effort to “stake out new occupational territory” for “community making” on the Internet, an example of people who were
“breaking out of the ‘social factory’” that Terranova put forward (Postigo, 2003, 2009).
Terranova and Postigo rightly draw attention to the codependence of many online platforms with the substantial
uncompensated labor that continues to support them.
Community management is now more common as a paid
position, but the majority of the labor continues to be unpaid.
Theories of digital labor offer clarity on the challenges of
creating a “profitable business,” through volunteer labor, as
Adrian Chen phrased it in The New York Times.
In many ways, the reddit blackout defies explanation by
prior theories of volunteer moderation. Moderators did not
attempt to stake out their work as an occupation, nor did they
demand compensation. Instead, they leveraged reddit’s
dependence on advertising to force the company to better
meet their needs and those of their communities. As
Centivanny has argued, the reddit blackout was a social
movement focused on company policy, a moment where the
dependence of a platform on volunteer labor was deployed to
achieve aims with as many civic dimensions as economic
ones (Centivany & Glushko, 2016).
Moderation as Civic Participation
Volunteer moderation is also the work of creating, maintaining, and defining “networked publics,” imagined collective
spaces that “allow people to gather for social, cultural, and
civic purposes” (boyd, 2010). While social platforms offer
technical infrastructures that constitute these publics, the
work of creating and maintaining these imagined spaces is
carried out in many everyday ways by platform participants
and moderators. Butler and colleagues call the work of moderation “community maintenance,” drawing attention to the
“communal challenge of developing and maintaining their
existence.” They compare these communities to neighborhood societies, churches, and social movements. Writing
about the details of community work online, Butler and colleagues draw attention to the benefits of affiliation and
social capital. Where Terranova and Postigo see labor in service of platform business models, Butler and his colleagues
(2002) describe community maintenance as a service to the
community itself. This view on the work of maintaining
communities is similar to what Boyte and Kari (1996) call
“public work,” an activity of cooperative citizenship that
“creates social as well as material culture” (p. 21). Aside
from the unique challenges of tending community software,
4 Social Media + Society
the mailing list moderators studied by Butler support their
communities by recruiting newcomers, managing social
dynamics, and participating in the community.
As online harassment has grown in prominence, scholarship on the role of moderators has drawn attention to their
work to protect people’s capacities to participate in publics.
Volunteers who respond to harassment create and manage
technical infrastructures such as “block bots” and moderation bots to filter “harassment, incivility, hate speech, trolling, and other related phenomena,” argues Stuart Geiger.
These volunteer efforts see moderation as “a civil rights
issue of governance,” where marginalized groups deploy
community infrastructure to claim spaces for conversation,
community, and support (Geiger, 2016).
While these civic perspectives on moderation acknowledge the role of platforms, they foreground the relationship
between moderators and the publics they are responsible for.
The labor of moderators does sustain platform economies,
yet the work itself is most directly concerned with the specific communities they govern. When moderators are questioned, as Adrian Chen did in The New York Times magazine,
it is often for their record at fostering “harmonious community.” Yet theories of moderation as civic participation miss
important ways that moderators define their work in relation
to platforms and other moderators, sometimes in ways that
conflict with the wishes of their communities.
Moderation as Oligarchy
Even as moderation work supports community, the power of
individual moderators is defined and managed by other moderators who gate-keep the process of taking on and maintaining the role. A third perspective on volunteer moderation
examines ways that this work is socially structured by other
moderators and the interests of these moderators can diverge
from the goals of their communities.
Early theories of leadership development in online communities imagined a “reader to leader” process where more
active participants gain greater responsibility over time
(Preece & Shneiderman, 2009). However, longitudinal
research by Shaw and Hill has shown online communities to
be much more like other voluntary organizations, where
“group of early members consolidate and exercise a monopoly of power within the organization as their interests diverge
from the collective’s.” Across 683 Wikia wikis, they find
support for this “iron law of oligarchy,” showing that on
average, a small group does come to control the positions of
formal authority as a wiki grows (Shaw & Hill, 2014). Yet
where Shaw and Hill see oligarchy, others see experience
necessary for online communities to flourish. Also studying
Wikia, Zhu and colleagues (2014) interpreted similar findings to argue that communities whose leaders also lead other
communities are more likely to survive and grow.
In all these cases, experienced and powerful moderators
control the process for others to gain and maintain
their positions. Anyone seeking the role must negotiate that
position with other moderators as well as their community
and the platform. While moderators are powerful as a group,
theories of oligarchy cannot explain the ways that platforms
and communities do exert power in volunteer moderation, or
the ways that moderators negotiate their work in relation to
those other stakeholders.
Standpoint and Methods
My attempt to understand the meaning of volunteer moderation is grounded in my standpoint as a researcher who works
directly with online communities and volunteer moderators
in studies that are independent from the technology industry
(Matias & Mou, 2018). When developing this research, I
needed ways to think about the power relations of volunteer
moderation and how to negotiate that power with the stakeholders involved. I began asking these questions after leading a team to study efforts by Women, Action, and the Media
(WAM!), a non-governmental organization (NGO) that was
supporting people experiencing harassment on Twitter
(Matias et al., 2015). The volunteers who reviewed harassment reports and advocated the cases to Twitter were criticized from multiple directions. Some argued that these
advocates represented a step backward for progress on online
harassment, taking on labor that Twitter should be paying for
(Meyer, 2014). WAM! certainly managed its relationship
with Twitter to retain the privilege of supporting harassment
receivers and maintain a public voice on the company’s policies. Others called our project a dangerous form of authoritarian censorship (Sullivan, 2014). The volunteers saw their
work as a contribution to civic life in service to the people
who asked for their help. Which of these was true? In our
answers to ourselves and to these stakeholders, WAM! and
our research team needed to draw and redraw the boundaries
of our work to manage public expectations and serve the
public good we hoped we could provide.
My fieldwork with reddit moderators began at a time
when I was trying understand the many-sided scrutiny that
WAM!’s harassment reviewers had faced. WAM!’s responders might be unpaid volunteers who took on a substantial
burden of emotional labor, but they were also a privately
selected group with substantial power over others. Their
work served platform operators who could remove them at
will. They also served and governed users, who pressured
them to share and justify their actions. As I spent time with
reddit moderators, I watched them respond to similar questions from these multiple sides, a position many moderators
had been negotiating for years.
To study the discursive boundary work that reddit moderators conduct with platforms, communities, and each other,
I carried out participant observation, content analysis, interviews, and trace data collection on the social news site reddit
over a 4-month period from June through September 2015,
with follow-up data collection through February 2016.
Matias 5
Collected content includes 10 years of public statements by
the company, 90 published interviews by moderators of other
moderators, statements by over 200 subreddits that joined
the blackout, over 150 subreddit discussions after concluding
participation in the blackout, and over 100 discussions in
subreddits that declined to join the blackout.4
I also used the
reddit API to conduct trace analysis of moderator roles in the
population of 52,735 active subreddits. Finally, I held semistructured interviews with 14 moderators of subreddits of all
sizes, sampled from communities both sides of the blackout.
Interviewees included moderators of “NSFW” subreddits
only available to users 18 years or older, as well as more
widely accessible subreddits. Moderators of subreddits allegedly associated with hate speech declined to participate. I
coded interviews, blog posts, online discussions, and other
records by entering them into the Tinderbox information
management system, where I tagged, clustered, and constructed qualitative evidence (Bernstein, 2003).
In this article, I focus on moments of tension and transition that brought debates over the meaning of moderation to
the fore, including disputes over moderator decisions, the
process of becoming a moderator, transitions of leadership,
conflicts between communities, crises of legitimacy, the
work of starting new communities, debates over compensation, and collective action during the reddit blackout of July
2015. Throughout points of tension and transition, moderators carry out the work of defining this civic labor at the
boundaries of their relationships with platforms, their communities, and other moderators.
Disputing and Justifying Moderation
Decisions with Communities
When someone’s contribution to reddit is removed by moderators, it can often come as a surprise. Since many participants engage primarily with the platform’s aggregated feed,
they may not be aware that the posts they submit are subject
to a subreddit’s community policies (Massanari, 2015).
Responses to moderation decisions are often received
through “modmail,” a shared inbox for each subreddit’s
moderators. Complaints often include moderation policy
debates, profanity, racist slurs, and threats of violence.
Even when moderators ignore the complaints, these disputes shape the language the moderators use to describe
their roles as dictators, martyrs, janitors, hosts, connoisseurs, and policymakers.
Some moderators describe themselves as “dictators,”
arguing that the power they exercised needed no justification. In these communities, “the top mod makes all the decisions, usually because s/he created the sub.” Those who
complain are urged either to accept moderator power or to
stay away.
Moderators of subreddits dedicated to marginalized communities sometimes explain themselves as defenders. One
moderator described the former moderator of a gender
minority subreddit as a “martyr, angry and whirling and
ready to give hell to anyone who dared to cross her or to
threaten her communities.” When adopting the figure of a
defender, moderators draw attention to the moral and political justifications for their exercise of power.
Other moderators adopt language from hospitality or service labor, describing themselves as “hosts” and “janitors.”
These analogies de-politicize their role. Describing themselves in this way, one moderator argued that “my subreddits
belong to my communities, I just happen to help out by
cleaning up.” Reflecting on the accusations and complaints
they receive, another moderator explained,
It seems like it’s some sort of important position, while it’s
actually just janitoral work . . . the degree of accusations, insults,
abuse and unreasonable complaints from the politically
interested is extreme . . . it’s janitorial when you remove
hundreds of comments that just say “kill yourself blackie.”
When I asked moderators whether the language of janitor
also implied a labor critique toward the reddit company, they
disagreed. One described the language of janitor as “a
response to complaints about conspiracies, censorship, etc”
rather their relationship to the company.
Many moderators describe themselves as connoisseurs
when explaining their decisions about what to remove. In
one subreddit dedicated to shocking material, moderators
expressed disappointment over the lack of nuance and quality in submitters’ sense of the truly shocking. For example,
one moderator claimed that too many submitters are shocked
by images of nudity, violent injury, or death; moderators considered these too commonplace for inclusion. These moderators described themselves as taste-makers for their
communities: “we are fucked up, but in a courtesy sniff kinda
way that you’re ok with sharing with your friends.”
Some moderators respond to complaints of censorship by
drawing inspiration from the language of governance. These
subreddits describe their decisions in terms of “policies” and
sometimes produce transparency reports of moderation
actions. One subreddit described its transparency report as a
response to participant complaints, an effort “towards
improving user-moderator relations.”5
Their five-page report
offered an empirical response to common complaints
received by moderators of this 10million subscriber community. Several other large subreddits publish aggregated transparency reports, with some sharing public logs of every
action taken by the group’s moderators. By publishing transparency reports, moderators position themselves as civic
actors accountable to their communities. The reports deflect
criticism while also inviting evidence-based discussions of
moderation practices.
The language of governance is also used by reddit participants who investigate and analyze moderator behavior.
One interviewee described investigating and “exposing” a
6 Social Media + Society
moderator for encouraging reddit users to share sexual photographs of minors. The investigators organized a press
campaign to pressure the company, who then shut down the
subreddit involved (Morris, 2011). In another case, participants accused a large technology subreddit’s moderators of
censoring political discussions. To support these accusations, one person conducted data analysis of the subreddit’s
history, creating charts that showed a sharp cutoff in discussions of surveillance and other political topics. The moderators’ accusers argued that the subreddit lacked
“accountability” and “transparency.” After the reddit platform sanctioned the subreddit amid substantial international press coverage, the moderators also invoked the
language of governance, making a formal public statement
that “the mods directly responsible for this system are no
longer a part of the team and the new team is committed to
maintaining a transparent style of moderation.” (BBC,
2014; Collier, 2014).
Internships, Applications, and Elections:
Becoming a Moderator on reddit
The practical work of recruiting and choosing new moderators also requires people to define what it means to be a
moderator. Since a subreddit’s current moderators control
the reddit software’s process of appointing new moderators, would-be moderators must justify themselves and
their ideas of the work to their would-be peers. Likewise,
current moderators invest substantial labor into the work of
admitting new moderators. At these moments of transition,
democratic, oligarchic, and professional notions of moderator work come into tension as subreddits negotiate who
should select the leaders and what qualities they should
demonstrate.
Among those interviewed, moderators gained their positions through a wide range of means. One was added by a
school friend who needed extra help. Others were invited to
be moderators after demonstrating substantial participation
in the subreddit’s affairs. One was made a moderator in
appreciation of their role to expose the scandal over sexual
images of minors. Some were recruited for their expertise at
operating the reddit platform software. Yet many subreddits
also operate formal structures for adding moderators, systems that draw from the language of the workplace and the
public sector.
Many subreddits hold a formal application process for
becoming a moderator. In the simplest versions, interested
parties fill out an interview form, noting their time zone
and availability, describing their moderation experience,
listing their skills, and explaining their reasons for applying. One popular subreddit received 600 applications in
one recruitment effort, identified a shortlist of 60 applicants to interview, and chose from the shortlist. The process from call to selection can take from weeks to over a
month.
While moderator teams sometimes take final responsibility for selecting new moderators—what Shaw and Hill call
oligarchy—some subreddits open the final selection to subscribers. The reddit platform doesn’t support ballots, so subreddits have developed their own voting systems. Speaking
about elections in a community for people from marginalized
groups in the United States, a moderator explained, “I got
one ballot, just like every one else.” Yet especially with elections, moderators still felt responsible to filter possible nominees lest the wrong person become elected. The same
moderator explained that public opinion wasn’t appropriate
for nominating candidates since it risked reinforcing prejudice: “lots of people who can’t be bigots so much anymore
[due to social pressure] have found that they can still target
[minority group] and nobody seems to mind.”
If voting software supplies infrastructure for democratic
notions of moderation, the job board for finding experienced
moderators outside of a community offers infrastructure for
more oligarchic forms of leadership. This subreddit publishes moderation opportunities alongside “offers to mod.”
Postings routinely offer arguments on the nature of moderation work, such as the disinterested approach to moderation
offered in one job listing for a community with frequent
conflicts:
I’m looking for an impartial moderator, who doesn’t belong to
[organization], and who doesn’t hold a specific view on it. Must
have:
•  been on reddit for at least 2 years
•  moderating experience
The sub is an open platform to discuss [topic], but prejudiced
comments aren’t allowed.
Soon after the primary moderator posted this message,
community members, who had noticed the listing, added
objections: “Seriously? We have posted so many requests for
mods to that sub. We have even posted solutions that result in
a very balanced 3 party system.” These community members
accused the poster of delinquency and argued strongly
against the idea of disinterested, objective moderation:
“Anyone without knowledge on the subject will be unable to
effectively moderate the sub.” After an extended discussion,
the moderator accepted their proposal, and the “three party
system” was still in place over 1 year later.
Even democratic subreddits emphasize previous experience when selecting moderators, leading many to seek and
tout their moderation “rѐsumѐ.” Since a medium-to-large
subreddit is unlikely to accept applicants with limited experience, some subreddits grow their labor pool by offering
“internships” and other entry-level moderation opportunities. /r/SubredditOfTheDay, which publishes original content every day, offers a 2-month internship for people seeking
moderation opportunities. Interns agree to write six original
Matias 7
posts that feature interviews with the moderation teams of
other subreddits. Those who finish the internship period are
made full moderators, and they also gain opportunities to
moderate other subreddits.
The process of choosing moderators is one of the most
powerful ways to define the meaning of moderation and
acculturate moderators to that meaning. Even during attempts
at democracy or oligarchy, the other stakeholders still shape
this acculturation through the platform software, through
public pressure, or through the power that moderators have
over the process.
Crises in Legitimacy and the Removal
of Moderators
In technical terms, only two parties can remove a moderator
from their position on reddit. Platform employees, known as
“admins,” occasionally remove moderators if they are convinced that the moderator was inactive or abusing their
power. Moderators with greater seniority also possess the
power to remove those within the same community who
were appointed more recently.
In an interview, one moderator described a “coup attempt”
by moderators who systematically removed others who disagreed with their political views. Someone noticed the
attempt in time and reinstated the ejected moderators. In
another case, the sibling of someone who moderated a 30,000
subscriber group compromised their reddit account, took
charge of the subreddit, and only restored it upon receiving
threats of violence. Many moderators, especially those of
large or contentious subreddits, pay close attention to their
personal information security to protect against such takeovers. Platform employees will also occasionally take action
to restore a subreddit’s moderators when asked.
Moderators are more commonly removed for failing to
perform their role. In some cases, would-be moderators
appeal to the platform, who offer a process for requesting
moderation of “inactive” subreddits. In other cases, a moderator loses their legitimacy to govern—as in the case of the
technology moderators that were removing all conversations
about surveillance. In these cases, community participants
sometimes pursue the person they mistrust, incessantly
mocking their pronouncements and questioning their decisions. Such cases tend to conclude with a post from the moderator announcing their resignation, or a post from other
moderators announcing that the offending moderator has
been removed.
Moderator Compensation and
Corruption
In 2012, a moderator of three of the largest subreddits posted
links to an online news outlet after being hired as a social
media advisor by the publisher’s marketing firm (Morris,
2012). In response, the reddit platform banned the user and
added a rule against third party compensation. Moderators
also receive substantial scrutiny and criticism from their
communities for alleged “corruption.”
In one case, someone sent messages on the reddit platform to “a few dozen” moderators, offering compensation
for help promoting their content. When some moderators
reported the offer to reddit, employees investigated the private messages of everyone who received the offer. When the
employees noticed that some moderators had responded positively, the company banned their accounts, including moderators of some of the platform’s largest, most popular NSFW
subreddits (Martinez, 2013). In 2015, a large gaming company asked moderators to remove links to material that could
not legally be published, offering moderators early access to
an upcoming Star Wars game in exchange for their help.
When one moderator reported the relationship to reddit
employees, the others removed the moderator for a time,
until they themselves were banned by reddit for accepting a
“bribe.” A reddit representative explained that the gaming
company should have used alternative channels to address
illegally shared material (Khan, 2015). In another case, a
mobile phone manufacturer offered “perks” to moderators of
a subreddit that commonly discussed their products. In
exchange, the company asked that its employees be made
moderators. To protect themselves from community disapproval or platform intervention, moderators reported the
request to reddit and posted the offending messages for discussion by their community (Farrell, 2015).
In interviews, moderators were insistent that they did not
seek compensation, arguing that news articles that focused
on their unpaid status failed to understand the nature of their
work. One interviewee brought up the AOL community
leader program, arguing that reddit moderators were different because they weren’t managed as closely as the AOL volunteers. This independence was important to many
moderators, including one who claimed, “I don’t think I
work for reddit. I run communities and reddit is the tool I use
to do that.” Yet at the time of the reddit blackout, moderators
also felt ignored by the company behind these “tools.” One
explained that “it doesn’t help when the site you are on
doesn’t appreciate/recognize/care about the cumulative thousands and thousands of hours the mods put in to make their
site usable.”
Starting Subreddits and Governing
Moderator Networks
While some new subreddits are created to support a preexisting community, many moderators describe “founding” a
subreddit and developing a growing community over time.
Yet even the work of creating new subreddits requires managing the expectations of platform operators, moderators,
and community participants. In interviews, I observed these
8 Social Media + Society
negotiations among relationship-themed subreddits and networks of subreddits.
Relationship subreddits offer listings of people who are
looking for conversations, penpals, and relationships,
sometimes sexual, but often not. When one moderator
started a group for users of a mobile messaging system,
their goal was to help newcomers on the messaging platform “find more people to chat with,” whatever age. As the
subreddit grew, participants continued to post requests for
relationships and conversations that could be illegal for
minors. These “dirty” relationship requests also put the
subreddit at risk of intervention from reddit employees.
Rather than designate the subreddit “NSFW,” which would
limit minors from accessing the group, the moderator created a parallel subreddit for “dirty” relationship matching.
By splitting the conversation, the moderator found a way to
meet community expectations while also protecting the primary subreddit from platform intervention. When asked
why they moderated a community that wasn’t safe for children, the moderator explained that “I never intended to
moderate a NSFW subreddit. It blew me away the community want for it.”
Creators of new subreddits also work to comply with the
expectations of other moderators, especially if they seek to
join a subreddit “network.” These networks are jointly managed collections of subreddits that share moderators and a
common governance structure. Some networks specialize in
a particular kind of content. Several offer inspiring generalinterest photography; others share celebrity pornography.
Some networks adopt a structure akin to city states. To join
the network, a moderator must grow their subreddit to a minimum size, institute a set of network-designated policies, and
convince a “champion” within the network to advocate for
their inclusion. These champions also help new network
members comply with the network’s requirements. New subreddits are inducted by vote from the moderators. At the time
of writing, the largest two networks included 169 and 117
constituent subreddits, although networks also occur at
smaller scales.
One network stopped accepting new subreddits after participants in a newly added subreddit began “doxing” reddit
users—a practice of publishing the addresses and phone
numbers of people they disliked:
one time we added a sub, vetted them, once we approved them,
they started posting information on reddit users, so it looked like
[the network] had approved doxxing, which was one of the two
things that could get us banned [by the company].
Rather than risk reprisals from the platform operator, the
network dissociated itself from the offending subreddit and
halted all new applications. To address future risks, they
required all groups to accept a lead moderator from the network’s central leadership, to keep “everyone pointed in the
same direction.”
Acknowledeging Moderators’ Position
With Platform, Community, and Other
Moderators
Two regularly shared comic strips by former moderator
Daniel Allen remark directly on the work that moderators
must do to manage their relationships with their communities, other moderators, and the reddit platform. The first “life
of a mod” comic strip presents moderators as people who
carry out a wide range of community care for little appreciation. In the comic, moderators are janitors, referees, police,
educators, and artists (Figure 1). The second presents the
“Life of a Secret Cabal Mod,” drawing attention to the accusations of oligarchy that moderators receive. The heading of
each panel includes a common accusation toward moderators. The illustration beneath each heading offers an alternative explanation for the behavior that attracts accusation. For
example, when one moderator helps another learn to remove
what they see as hate speech, they could be accused of conspiring to silence dissent. When platform employees share
software updates and moderators pass on community complaints to the company, they might also be accused of collusion (Figure 2). By drawing attention to the complicated
negotiations that moderators conduct in multiple directions,
Allen’s comics themselves make a case for how those parties
should see moderators.
Civic Labor in the Reddit Blackout
Scholars of moderation work have rightly identified the
stakeholders that moderators face as they negotiate the meaning of the work. This “civic labor” requires moderators to
serve three masters with whom they negotiate the idea of
moderation: the platform, reddit participants, and other moderators. Moderators differ in the pressure they receive from
these parties and the weight they give them. Some face further stakeholders outside the platform. Yet attempts to make
sense of moderation by focusing on any one of these relationships can bring the other actors out of focus. These limitations become apparent when attempting to make sense of
the reddit blackout, which was not a labor dispute, not always
a collective action from communities, and not entirely a
coordinated action by a bloc of organized moderators seeking to consolidate power. All three of these interlocutors in
the boundary work of moderators are apparent in prior
research on the factors that predicted a subreddit’s chance of
joining the blackout. Those models show that communityrelated factors as well as factors in the relations between
moderators predicted the likelihood of a subreddit to put
pressure on the company (Matias, 2016). Across the population of subreddits, moderators found the decision thrust upon
them. Their actions represent the outcomes of unique negotiations with the three parties who together bring their work
into being.
Matias 9
Deciding to Join the Blackout
The reddit blackout was precipitated when the company dismissed an employee who had consistently offered direct
support to moderators in some of the site’s most popular discussions: live question-answer sessions with notable people,
called Ask-Me-Anything threads (Isaac, 2015). Moderators
of the /r/IamA subreddit described being caught off guard
while in the middle of a live Q&A. When they disabled their
subreddit to decide their response (Lynch & Swearingen,
2015), other moderators of large subreddits took note. To
these observers, the company’s failure to coordinate the transition with moderators was another sign of its neglect of
moderator needs. Moderators had already been attempting to
convince the company to improve moderator software and
increase its coordination with moderators. In interviews,
moderators explained that moderators of the largest groups
had previously dismissed the idea of blacking out. But “after
she was fired, the idea came up again, [and] no one was
really against it.” These moderators described the blackout
as a tactic that might give greater leverage to company
employees who routinely advocated for moderator interests.
When other moderators observed the behavior of these large
groups, many joined the blackout, leaving messages on their
subreddits expressing “solidarity” for moderators affected by
the blackout.
Even as moderators discussed the blackout with each
other, they also negotiated pressures from their communities
over the decision to join the blackout. In interviews, moderators described receiving large volumes of private messages
from participants that urged them toward or against the
blackout. In response, many posted discussion threads asking for community opinions or announcing their decisions.
Figure 1. “Life of a Mod” comic by former moderator Daniel Allen, /u/solidwhetstone.
Figure 2. Details from “Life of a Secret Cabal Mod” comic by
former moderator Daniel Allen, /u/solidwhetstone.
10 Social Media + Society
In one post, a moderator apologized for “the inconvenience
of going dark” and explained,
I did get messages from people. The more I watched and saw
more and more subs going down, I figured it was worth sending
a message [to the platform]. We had kind of a mod vote and
decided to black out.
Community interests were considered in many moderator
decisions. One group of gaming-related subreddits, whose
moderators see it as an “island just barely within reddit” concluded that joining the blackout would “punish our users
who don’t know or don’t care about reddits politics.” Yet
they still faced pressure from many their community to join
the blackout: “we eventually released the statement after we
received dozens of modmails and posts on both subreddits.”
Some moderators invited their communities to vote on
participation in the blackout. In many cases, moderators followed the results of community votes. Yet networks of moderators did not always agree with their communities. In one
subreddit in a subreddit network, one moderator held a vote
that came out in favor of the blackout. The rest of the network stayed active; moderators more central to the network
described the vote as a “rogue faction” and ignored it.
Instead, they issued a proclamation that the entire network
would stay out of the protest. Elsewhere, one moderator
described their community vote as a way to distract those
who were clamoring for the blackout, gaining time for moderators to reach a collective decision. Many moderators and
participants questioned the legitimacy of the votes that did
occur, guessing that the results might be skewed by influxes
of reddit users beyond their community who wanted to influence a community’s decision.
Across these situations, moderators faced the same three
questions: what would their actions say to the platform, to
other moderators, and to their communities? The effect of the
blackout on reddit’s civic labor would not be limited to their
relationship with the company—it would affect every other
relationship in their everyday moderation work.
Defending Decisions After the Blackout
Moderators also faced the consequences of their decisions
once the blackout concluded. When the platform operators
quickly ceded to moderator demands, many declared victory.
Community and moderator reactions were more complex.
While some subreddits systematically removed any mention
of the blackout, it was more common for moderators to post
a discussion explaining what had happened. Especially for
subreddits that were disabled for the entire weekend, this
conversation could be heated. Only a small number of participants might notice a vote called at the moment of decision; many more would feel the effects of a blacked-out
community. At these moments, moderators often defended
themselves by referring to these votes. “You’re all upset
about the blackout decision. Which is silly. If you were upset
why didn’t you raise your concerns?” one wrote. In other
cases, moderators assigned responsibility to a single moderator acting alone. Sometimes, they offered statements that
they removed the person from the moderation team or
encouraged them to resign.
In many of these discussions, moderators expressed support for the blackout, explained the reasons one might join
the protest, and also apologized to their communities. These
statements positioned moderators as supporters of the blackout while also defending themselves from community critiques. One recipe-sharing subreddit moderator took a
compromise position by briefly joining the blackout and then
re-opening in advance of 4 July US Independence Day parties. They expressed their “full support” for the other moderators, drew attention to an overwhelming community vote
to blackout, and then wrote an apology: “we are deeply sorry
for the outage. Things need to change on reddit, and this was
our best way to let them know our demands.”
Conclusion: Civic Labor Online
While the details of volunteer moderation are always under
negotiation, the negotiations surrounding this civic labor
always face platform operators, community participants, and
other moderators. Scholarly accounts of moderation are right
to draw attention to these different stakeholders, but a clearer
account of moderation work should attend to all three at
once, just as moderators must always do. All three forces
acculturate a moderator to their ever-changing position, from
the application process to the moment they step down or are
removed.
From the most common dispute over a single comment
removal to collective actions that make international news,
the meaning of moderation is described in all three ways as
people define and redefine the boundaries of moderation.
Calling this work civic labor allows us to acknowledge the
complex and contingent nature of volunteer moderation
throughout the conversations that draw and redraw its meaning together with platforms, the public, and moderators
themselves.
These stakeholders are not an exclusive list. For example,
during the reddit blackout, two reddit moderators published
a New York Times opinion article in the attempt to retain their
celebrity guests and large public audience (Lynch &
Swearingen, 2015). Yet I argue, based on my fieldwork, that
negotiations with these three stakeholders are central to any
discussion of volunteer governance online.
This civic labor has been a recurring pattern in a 40-year
history of volunteers being invited, elected, and chosen into
governance positions online. Nor is it unique to for-profit
platform; moderators of non-profit platforms such as
Wikipedia face a similar set of stakeholders to maintain their
roles, as do the journalists involved in fact-checking news on
Facebook (Ananny, 2018).
Matias 11
It is possible that civic labor may also be found beyond
online platforms: in debates over the unionization of school
street-crossing guards, among parents who coach community sports within for-profit leagues, in the elected school
boards of publicly funded private schools, or in the everyday
governance work of scholarly peer review. In all these cases,
volunteers do more than just the work associated with their
role: they must negotiate the meaning of their civic role and
power with each other and with a wider system that relies on
their labor.
Even if civic labor is unique to our digitally mediated
social lives, the sense we make of this work will shape our
capacity to build meaningful relationships online while protecting public safety, managing our civil liberties, and
upholding principles of justice. By recognizing that work
more clearly, we can build the understandings we need to
address these challenges as a society.
Acknowledgements
This work was undertaken while I was a summer intern at Microsoft
Research. I owe special thanks to the hundreds of reddit users who
participated in this research. I am also deeply grateful to Tarleton
Gillespie and Mary Gray for offering mentorship and feedback
throughout this research, as well as the Oxford Internet Institute
brownbag seminar, who offered generous feedback on an early version of this argument.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect
to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
Funding
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support
for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: This
research was funded as part of an internship at Microsoft Research.
Notes
1. http://web.archive.org/web/20150703012219/http://www
.reddit.com/about (accessed 3 July 2015)
2. http://web.archive.org/web/20150704143845/https://about
.twitter.com/company (accessed 4 July 2015)
3. Many accounts have multiple moderator positions, and some
use “throwaway accounts” and “alts” on reddit (Leavitt, 2015).
While this number is based on an empirical analysis I conducted in June 2015, the number of accounts may be greater
than the number of people involved.
4. Quotations from subreddit discussions have been obfuscated
to protect participant privacy.
5. https://www.reddit.com/r/science/comments/43g15s/first
_transparency_report_for_rscience/
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Author Biography
J. Nathan Matias organizes citizen behavioral science for a safer,
fairer, more understanding Internet. He studies digital governance
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https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305120978364
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Social Media + Society
October-December 2020: 111
The Author(s) 2020
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sagepub.com/journals-permissions
DOI: 10.1177/2056305120978364
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Article
For me, this space of radical openness is a margina profound
edge. Locating oneself there is difficult yet necessary. It is not a
safe place. One is always at risk. One needs a community of
resistance. (hooks, 1989, p. 206)
The mediatization of Asian-ness as contagion has been a
large part of the information environment surrounding the
2020 COVID-19 pandemic. Mainstream media outlets have
used generic images of Chinatowns and East Asian people in
masks without context; racist comments and false information
about avoiding Asian businesses have spread on social media
platforms; and continuing communication from the Trump
administration racializes the virus as the Chinese virus.
Simultaneously, in the United States, media coverage of coronavirus-related racism toward Asians and Asian Americans
have reinforced perceptions of Asian America as both monolithic and East Asian/Chinese-centric. In anticipating and
responding directly to a racially hostile media and information
environment, digital media created by Asian American organizers, community groups, and artists in the midst of the
COVID-19 crisis have grappled with tensions between forging
collective politics while also pushing against presumptions of
racial homogeneity. Backlash from some Asian Americans
against shirts proclaiming I am not Chinese and former
Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yangs call for
Asians to be more American demonstrate the contentious
politics of Asian American identity (Kuo, 2018).
In the early stages of the pandemic, a multitude of digital
outputs began making up a rich media ecosystem, demonstrating the depth and breadth of Asian American knowledges, histories, and experiences in making meaning and
living through the COVID-19 pandemic. Alice Wong,
Director of the Disability Visibility Project, curated a sample
of 1,299 tweets (Wong, 2020) about coronavirus from the
perspectives of homebound, chronically ill, and immunosuppressed people. Writer Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
(2020) published emergency preparation tips from her survival experiences of being poor and disabled. Artist Monyee
Chau (2020a) created a comic on Yellow Peril and community resilience to share the history of Seattles International
District to generate donations for the Wing Luke Museum of
the Asian Pacific American Experience. These resources and
more draw on community-based knowledge to distribute
978364SMSXXX10.1177/2056305120978364Social Media <span class=”symbol” cstyle=”Mathematical”>+</span> SocietyKuo et al.
research-article20202020
1
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA
2
The University of Texas at Austin, USA
3
Harvard University, USA
4
California State University, Los Angeles, USA
Corresponding Author:
Rachel Kuo, Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life, The
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 100 Manning Hall, CB 3360,
Chapel Hill, NC 25799, USA.
Email: [email protected]; @rachelkuo
#FeministAntibodies: Asian American
Media in the Time of Coronavirus
Rachel Kuo1 , Amy Zhang2, Vivian Shaw3,
and Cynthia Wang4
Abstract
This article examines the tensions, communal processes, and narrative frameworks behind producing collective racial politics
across differences. As digital media objects, the Asian American Feminist Collectives zine Asian American Feminist Antibodies:
Care in the Time of Coronavirus and corresponding #FeministAntibodies Tweetchat responds directly to and anticipates a
social media and information environment that has racialized COVID-19 in the language of Asian-ness. Writing from an
autoethnographical perspective and using collaborative methods of qualitative discourse analysis as feminist scholars, mediamakers, and interlocuters, this article looks toward the technological infrastructures, social economies, and material forms
of Asian American digital media-making in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Keywords
feminist media, Twitter, social media, Asian American, activism
2 Social Media + Society
information and identify historical and political frameworks
for understanding state-based and racial violence.
The New York City-based Asian American Feminist
Collectives (AAFC) digital zine Asian American Feminist
Antibodies: Care in the Time of Coronavirus curated different media artifacts created prior to and during the crisis as an
archive of Asian American political mobilization. In early
March 2020, AAFC, along with community partner
Bluestockings Bookstore, Cafe, and Activist Center, initiated
a call to collect firsthand accounts of experiences with racism connected to COVID-19, resulting in 36 unique stories
of varying lengths describing the feelings and experiences of
public harassment and targeting in grocery stores, schools,
public transport, and other sites of daily encounter. As an
example of media-based organizing, which is a collaborative
process using media, art, and technology to envision solutions to interconnected systemic issues (Allied Media
Projects, 2020), the zine connected these firsthand accounts
with analyses from community organizers and activists.
Furthermore, the zine emphasizes that despite this moment
of precarity, there is both deep collective knowledge and
radical possibilities toward realizing dreams, visions, and
desires for an alternative world and building interdependent communities of resistance (Bhaman et al., 2020, p. 3).
Later, on 10 April 2020, AAFC and Bluestockings hosted a
community Tweetchat with 12 invited participants representing different organizations and campaigns under the hashtag
#FeministAntibodies. The Tweetchat was organized around
seven different questions, offering the invited participants a
space to discuss Asian American experiences of the pandemic
through the frameworks of community and care, reflect on historical parallels, and share resources. This coordinated effort
to bring different actors into a shared space and time also
afforded the opportunity for other people to join the conversation using the #FeministAntibodies hashtag. These media
practices function as rapid response strategies with a vision of
longer term movement building. Drawing on different perspectives across different community groups and movements,
the zine and corresponding Tweetchat aimed to foster political
alignments across differential experiences of crisisthus,
these digital materials help facilitate what bell hooks (1990)
calls a homeplace, a communal site of resistance.
This article looks to the technological infrastructures,
social economies, and material forms of Asian American
digital media-making in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Focusing on AAFCs zine Care in the Time of
Coronavirus and the corresponding hosted Tweetchat
#FeministAntibodies, this article highlights the tensions,
communal processes, and narrative frameworks behind
producing collective racial politics across differences. We
write from an autoethnographical perspective as the zines
creators and Tweetchats organizers, use collaborative
qualitative discursive methods as Asian American feminist
scholars, media practitioners, and interlocuters, and bring
critical technocultural discourse analysis (CTDA) to
ground our study of digital texts (Brock, 2016). Through
CTDA, we demonstrate how digital discursive practices
constitute and evolve identity-based political positionality.
In examining both the media-making process and content
within the zine and Tweetchat, we found three emergent
themes in how different actors understand, define, and
mobilize Asian American collective politics: (1) as intersectional and diverse, (2) as constituted interdependently,
and (3) as a site for imagining political possibility through
different histories. This study extends scholarship on the
cultural and racial politics of media, including Lisa Lowes
(1998) discussion of cultural production and subjectivity
and Lori Kido Lopezs (2016) discussion of Asian
American media activism as cultural citizenship; the uses
of social media to develop counter narratives and build
networks of dissent (Jackson et al., 2020), and contributes
to discussions of how race works online (Nakamura &
Chow-White, 2013).
In the ways that COVID-19 has been described through the
language and narratives of contagion, it is apt that the collective
political uses and circulation of hashtags by Asian Americans
on Twitter and other social media platforms create what Sanjay
Sharma (2013) describes as the contagious effects of networked relations (p. 48) in producing politics. This article
begins with an overview of Asian American cultural politics
and the mediation of race in online platforms, followed by a
discussion of political formation and temporality in the time of
crisis to contextualize Asian American digital organizing in the
midst of COVID-19. We then discuss our methodological
approaches in the creation and analysis of digital text. In our
findings, we argue that processes of digital organizing offer a
means to articulate Asian America as a political formation
through navigating uneven social differences.
Asian American Cultural Politics and
Digital Production
Tweeting as a political act, or what feminist scholar bell
hooks (1989) calls the margins, showcases digital mediamaking as sites of radical possibility, a space of resistance
(p. 149). Digital media outputs, such as zines, short illustrated comics posted to Instagram, and tweets constitute
minor objects . . . marginal forms, persons and worlds mobilized in narrative (including archival) constructions to designate moments of crisis (Nguyen, 2015, p. 12). Similarly,
these objects extend Lisa Lowes (1996) discussion of Asian
womens worker testimonials as crucial media that connect
subjects to social relations (p. 33). In other words, these
digital records can organize collective politics. Asian
American digital media production extends from print technologies and movement media histories of grassroots publications of newsletters, circulars, pamphlets, and zines (Kuo,
2017). For example, during 1960s and 1970s, leftist Asian
American organizations produced and circulated their own
Kuo et al. 3
movement media, such as Gidra and Basement Workshops
Bridge Magazine (Ishizuka, 2016). Deepa Iyer (2017)
describes grassroots media as utilizing the stories from the
lived experiences and leadership of those facing multiple
levels of injustice and inequities to equip and mobilize people around campaigns. Part of an alternative, progressive
media ecosystem, independently published media circulated
movement discourse to develop shared political imagination,
build political vision, challenge dominant paradigms, and
construct solidarities.
Asian American feminism as politics is also constructed
through ongoing technological discourse. For example, since
2018, AAFC has created digital and print zines and facilitated online discussions to interrogate and reflect upon feminism as an ever-evolving political practice and approach.
Such acts of media-making inherit both longer and more
recent histories of feminist media artifacts, from the Third
World Womens Alliances Triple Jeopardy newsletters in
the 1970s to hashtags such as #SolidarityisforWhiteWomen
and #NotYourAsianSidekick in 2013 (Kuo, 2017). Scholarship of digital activism has shown us how marginalized
groups excluded from mainstream media spaces have used
digital technologies for counter narratives, talking back
(Jackson et al., 2020; Steele, 2017), political debate, and
building movement networks. However, Black feminist
scholars have also challenged neoliberal narratives of digital
technologies/social media as sources of liberation and
empowerment (Noble, 2016). Different users are valued differently by corporate platforms based on social difference
for example, racial ideologies embedded within algorithms
play a role in facilitating disparate systems of value in how
information is accessed and circulated online (McIlwain,
2017). In the adaptation of Asian American cultural politics
in digital spaces, Victor Bascara and Lisa Nakamura (2014)
point us toward the significance of how different digital platforms transform cultural and political formations. They
argue that beyond a narrow focus on representation through
text and image, engaging how platforms intersect and shape
racial processes and relations enable us to see the capacities,
exclusions, and surveillance of racial bodies in digital space.
In beginning to write this article in early May 2020,
because of city and state social distancing and shelter-in
mandates due to COVID-19, many of the social and political
spaces we collectively inhabit are virtual. Yet, as much as
digital media platforms have enabled Asian American media
production, systems of oppression including vitriolic hate
speech and harassment continue to propagate in online
spaces. COVID-19 has exposed rampant existing inequalities of peoples access to safety, including digital safety. The
idea of free speech becomes complicated when corporate
platforms like Twitter become weaponized for harassment
and abuse, disproportionately against women and communities of color. The same technological affordances for political
mobilization and expression can also be used by White
supremacists and hate groups, with Zoom bombings
entering the digital space as a racist tool of abuse. Digital
organizing tactics, such as Tweetchats and Tweetstorms, or
multitudes of Tweets posted all at once using a hashtag identifier, have extended and corresponded with analog forms of
movement strategy through the act of reclaiming space in an
exhausting, relentlessly racist digital media environment.
Organizing in the Time of Crisis
Feminist organizing during a pandemic is fraught with social
and political imperatives that preceded COVID-19. Frames of
crisis that position this moment as new and temporary camouflage systems of power and exploitation that are operating as
designed. Instead, we understand the crisis as a consolidating
moment of racial capitalism. As activists in #FeministAntibodies
and Care in the Time of Coronavirus have suggested, the US
President Trumps stoking of anti-Asian racism through disinformation and Sinophobic monikers, such as Kung Flu and
Chinese virus, operate alongside the shock doctrine of eroding environmental protections through COVID-19 recovery
legislation. For as long as they remain unresolved, crises portend a multiplicity of potential outcomes. These uncertainties
influence activism and organizing, as well as the documentation of these efforts (Gilmore, 2007).
The neoliberal logics that enable states to avoid responsibilities during disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane
Maria, and now COVID-19 ironically underscore the necessity of mutual aid and other community-based political alternatives. When states dismiss their obligation to protect and
care for vulnerable groups as voluntary, they create a vacuum for activists to fill (Nickel & Eikenberry, 2007). For
example, the Japanese governments misinformation about
the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, combined with its
retrenchment of civil liberties and endorsement of ultraright
militarism in the years following, catalyzed a durable network of activists (Shaw, 2020). As these activists connected
the rise of anti-Korean hate speech in 2013 to the states failure to protect multiple groups of vulnerable people, they
began to envision antiracism as central to their task of
rebuilding their communities (Shaw, 2017). Moreover, they
prioritized their own social connections above recognition
from the state as a source of legitimacy. In this example,
activists re-centered political membership around obligation, mutual protection, and strugglewhich not only
includes the disaster but also refers to the temporality of protests themselvesas a collective experience (Shaw, 2017,
p. 73). In moments when states use disasters to levy additional harms on already injured communities, activists sometimes create new political coalitions (Tang, 2011).
Methodologies: On Process,
Collaboration, and Making Data
Focusing on the zine Care in the Time of Coronavirus and
#FeministAntibodies Tweetchat, this article brings together
4 Social Media + Society
autoethnographic reflections on media-based organizing
with qualitative discourse analysis of text. Together, these
methods intervene upon big data approaches to studies of
digital media through deeper data by offering an intimate
way to study, understand, and contextualize processes of
media production (Brock, 2015). Furthermore, these methods also unveil a process of data-makinghow datasets are
co-produced through research interventions (Vis, 2013). Our
process-oriented approach also draws upon Dorothy Kim
and Eunsong Kims (2014) #TwitterEthicsManifesto, which
rejects object-oriented and birds-eye approaches to digital
research, and instead foregrounds circular and participatory
systems. In using an autoethnographic approach that draws
on personal experience and position (Bailey, 2015; Korn,
2017), author Rachel Kuo writes from the reflexive position
of facilitating the zines creation and organizing the
Tweetchat as one of the co-leaders of the Asian American
Feminist Collective in collaboration with author Vivian
Shaw in the zines editorial process.
We invited authors Amy Zhang and Cynthia Wang as
feminist interlocutors with these digital texts. Together, we
coded the tweets through a qualitative inductive process,
using observations of the Tweetchats process and content to
find emergent themes about Asian American collective politics in these digital narratives. We see the process of collaboration as feminist methodologyworking and thinking
together to think as integral to intellectual and political
inquiry. In collaborating remotely, we developed an infrastructure of digital documents, messaging channels, and
scheduling meetings that enabled collective discussion of the
findings. As scholars across the fields of communication,
media studies, and sociology, beyond the content of the digital materials themselves, we also discussed our shared (and
also divergent) theories of race and methodological
approaches to learn cross-disciplinarily from each other.
To incorporate critical race and feminist theory and center
the epistemological standpoint of underserved users, we
bring CTDA to our qualitative study of digital text (Brock,
2016). As a technique, CTDA assesses user discourse alongside the technological and material specificities of media
platforms, connecting together form, function, and meaning.
For example, CTDA considers how differences between
mobile and desktop uses of Twitterthe holding of a handheld device with fingers brushing the screen versus typing at
a laptopchange how a user may participate in a digital
space, including different forms of political participation. As
a method, CTDA seeks to reveal the political meanings
embedded within technologies through examining their situated uses. Taking Asian American feminism as a grounding
pointspecifically, how it becomes articulated, defined, and
operationalized within technocultural spaceswe use CTDA
to inform an understanding of the making of collective politics by different actors across discursive platforms during a
particular point in time. In this way, CTDA connects with our
autoethnographic and collaborative approaches to critically
consider how our own position and practices as Asian
American feminists on Twitter and other digital platforms
also inform our interactions with and understandings of our
research materials.
As a field site for examining Asian American politics,
hashtags performatively frame racial meaning as well as
archiving and indexing racial discourses in an intertextual
chain (Bonilla & Rosa, 2015). The #FeministAntibodies
Tweetchat generated over 300 original tweets (not including
social engagement, such as retweets, likes, or shares). Kuo
created a public archive of the chat using Wakelet, a visual
content platform for organizing and curating online information. Wakelet functions as a substitute to Storify, a narrative
timeline platform that was shut down in May 2018, leaving
people scrambling to download their stories or risk them disappearing forever. The #FeministAntibodies Wakelet archive
includes 315 different posts organized by the seven questions
posed by AAFC during the chat (Asian American Feminist
Collective, 2020a). Using a platform external to Twitter
allows for both a re-evaluation and temporal re-organization
of information, since the search functions on Twitter only
easily afford reading the most recent posts first and also prioritizing posts with the highest engagement.
In late April, the four authors coded all of the tweets from
Wakelet, organized by the Tweetchats seven questions to
identify emergent themes. The questions, edited for length,
include the following: (1) How are Asian American communities experiencing the pandemic? (2) What kinds of community resources are missing in this moment for Asian
American communities and individuals? (3) What practices
of care are fueling you and providing you solace in this difficult moment? (4) What does revolutionary love and care
mean for you? (5) What parallels in history are we seeing?
(6) What mutual aid funds should we be supporting? and (7)
What kind of world would you like to build for the future?
These questions invited participants to both make sense of
the pandemic through historical contexts as well as circulate
and construct shared political visions.
After the coding process, the authors discussed themes
they observed in their reading and interpretation, arriving at
three emergent themes that revealed how political actors
within the Tweetchat were understanding and defining
Asian American collective politics: (1) assertions that
Asian American identities are intersectional and diverse,
(2) narratives of interdependency within Asian American
communities as well as solidarity with other marginalized
communities, and (3) using historical and contemporary
critiques of systems of violence to imagine future possibilities. In the findings and analysis that follow, we first share
details from the coordination and curation process of both
the zine and Tweetchat. Rather than solely focus on movement outputs, such as the tweets themselves, we emphasize
the immaterial and feminized labor in processes of movement building across different digital architectures. We
then turn to a discussion of the emergent themes from the
Kuo et al. 5
#FeministAntibodies Tweetchat and implications of these
themes in Asian American cultural production and politics.
Care in the Time of Coronavirus:
Making Asian American Feminist Media
Before its final form as a digital PDF, the AAFCs zine Asian
American Feminist Antibodies: Care in the Time of
Coronavirus existed over messy notes, emails, and Google
documents. Media coverage and scholarship of social movements often fail to acknowledge the mundane and quotidian
processes of media-making and the feminized and devalued
administrative and technical labor of creating digital media
outputs. Matilda Sabal, a volunteer for Bluestockings
Bookstore, originally reached out to AAFC to volunteer their
time, resources, and labor after witnessing multiple incidents
of anti-Asian racism in their local community. After several
email exchanges, plans were drafted for an open submissions
call. The zines editorial team drew primarily on their existing
networks, reaching out to friends they had previously organized and worked alongside; later, they also privately messaged poets, artists, and writers. Most contributors were quick
to reply, generously lending their work and perspectives to the
zine and expressing ways this project felt meaningful to them.
One user on Twitter regularly messaged AAFC directly to
share posts from their feed where Asian Americans were discussing instances of racism. These acts of reaching out to one
another and bringing people in function as gestures for connection. These acts of extending the reach of the self into space
forge meaningful political coalitionsbring[ing] into the
possibility of a we (Rodriguez, 2014, p. 2). The ways we
touch, reach, make space, and connect reveal how we relate to
those with whom we build community.
There are many limits to and critiques of using corporate
technologies such as Google Drive to develop communitybased communications infrastructures, such as data surveillance and the overvaluation of productivity. However, we
might also consider how feminist uses of these technologies
can reappropriate capitalist logics embedded within these
technologies. This might include using the comments feature
in Google Docs to offer expressions of gratitude, ask if someone needs support, or think and learn new histories and languages alongside other people. The zine itself functioned as a
means to bring people into space together through the figurative and literal space of a digital object. The proximities forged
through the use of spacethe alignment of text and images
reflect and express political alignments and orientations.
To generate further conversation from the zine and create
additional space for dialogue, AAFC and Bluestockings
hosted an hour-long Tweetchat on community care on 10
April 2020 using the hashtag #FeministAntibodies (Asian
American Feminist Collective, 2020b). Different leaders
within AAFC took on different tasks: generating questions,
designing graphics, and pre-writing tweets to post during the
event. AAFC also reached out to community partners. In
addition to individual contributors, invited participants represented leftist and anti-authoritarian organizations, groups,
and campaigns such as Equality Labs, Nodutdol, Red Canary
Song, and Free Them All for Public Health. Partners received
questions in advance to allow for preparation in addition to a
timeline for when questions for the chat would be posted;
this is reflected in the flow of the Tweetchat itself, as the
majority of the content comes from invited partners. The
shared labor of preparation affords a dynamism within the
conversation itself as an illusion of live-ness that invites
other interlocutors to participate.
During the Tweetchat, Kuo posted from AAFCs and her
individual user account, using Twitter on different browsers
to participate as both the organization and herself. She used
a Google doc of pre-written tweets and also participated in a
live video chat with other AAFC leaders. Another leader of
the collective spent the entire hour using Tweetdeck, a
browser extension, to retweet and engage posts from other
users participating in the conversation. The uses of different
platforms adjusted for limitations on interfaces. Emphasizing
the collective work behind producing the Tweetchat, such as
assembling together notes and threading together information, reveals laboring figures behind the machine (Green,
2011; Nakamura, 2011).
Organizing within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic
demonstrates the milieu of ways we bring movement work
home. Prior to the pandemic, AAFCs monthly Sunday meetings rotated between different collective leaders homes. bell
hooks (1989) describes a homeplace as one about building a
safe space for healing, affirmation, and growth within racist
systems. Or, as Barbara Smith (1989) describes of the Kitchen
Table Press, the kitchen is the center of a home for work and
communication and the kitchen table represents a grassroots
operation. The table can also be the site of a feminist point, a
surface for political work. The table and the home have often
been the site of networking space to foster belongingcollectively, it is a place for relationship building and gathering
together. The next section turns toward the digital discourses
circulating within the #FeministAntibodies chat to consider
how perspectives, orientations, and inheritances of political
and intellectual worlds and histories mobilize a particular orientation to Asian American collective politics.
#FeministAntibodies Tweetchat:
Collective Orientations
This section discusses the three emergent themes from the
coordinated #FeministAntibodies Tweetchat, interpreting how
different political actors understand and define Asian
America as a political formation that is (1) intersectional (or
not a monolith), (2) interdependent, and (3) with interconnected histories. The Tweetchat offers a specific discursive
articulation of Asian American collective politics within a
6 Social Media + Society
technocultural space as a way to intervene upon and remediate
the racialization of Asian-ness during the COVID-19
pandemic.
Together, the three themes challenge neoliberal norms in
both our technological and political culture, which fragment
identity-based differences into discrete, individual categories
by instead emphasizing difference as the foundation toward
building collective politics. The neoliberalization of identity
politics has reduced identity onto the level of the individual,
rather than membership in collective struggles against oppressive systems and structures. Capitalism has been a medium in
which community enacts itself (Joseph, 2002), and digital
platforms function as a site to both produce and consume
identity. For example, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun (2016) discusses how digital networks generate a neoliberal you,
rather than a collective we through a market of information.
However, feminist and queer uses of platforms can reflexively use neoliberal logics embedded into platforms to circulate alternative imaginings. Rather than address anti-Asian
racism during the COVID-19 pandemic at the level of individual injury, we interpret the Tweetchats themes as challenging dominant discourses around recognition based on
individual difference to instead re-imagine difference as a
building block for mass opposition against racism and capitalism. In this vein, the Tweetchat also demonstrates Asian
American feminism as entangled with discursive media
technologies.
Not a MonolithA Call for Intersectionality
AsAm communities are not experiencing this as a monolith.
Asians who are East/SE Asian, incarcerated, Muslim, working
class, undocumented, queer&trans, survivors, houseless are
facing racialized violence & need intra-community support &
solidarity. (Sharma, 2020a, April 10)
Participants in the Tweetchat identified a necessity in
extending and expanding the reach of Asian American collective formation. They stressed the need to push against the construction of Asian America as a monolith, a specific
intervention given the disproportionate focus on East Asian
populations by both mainstream news media coverage of
COVID-19 as well as Asian American media responses to this
coverage. They also highlighted the importance of intersectionality as a framework for building collective politics given
differential experiences of disaster under multiple systems of
power. While some early media accounts of the pandemic
expressed hope for shared unity, the crisis exposed how combined factors including race, ethnicity, religion, class, gender,
and other defining factors (Collins, 2015) differentially shape
peoples experiences. For example, people of color are infected
and dying at faster rates during the pandemic, have less access
to health care resources, and experience greater job instability
(Devakumar et al., 2020). Participants emphasized the different ways particular groups were facing racialized violence; for
example, Equality Labs (2020), a Dalit-led South Asian feminist organization, observed, Bangladeshi communities have
to close their shops and have no access to aid as well as a
huge uptick in hate-speech connecting Muslim people to
COVID-19 (@Equality Labs, April 10).
Participants cited differential access to resources as well
as unequally distributed exposure to state violence, testifying
to how the social and economic ramifications of COVID-19
impacted Asian populations in different ways. The potential
for harassment, coupled with increased stress regarding
potential economic loss, escalates during times of crisis
(Peek, 2011), as testified to by Tweetchat participants who
mentioned immigrant-owned stores, such as groceries, nail
salons, and restaurants, in their communities closing. Red
Canary Song (2020), a grassroots collective organizing Asian
sex workers, highlighted how informal sector workers lack
an unemployment safety net: . . . Street vendors, day laborers, domestic workers & sex workers put themselves at risk.
While there are few funds for gig workers, criminalized &
undocumented workers esp. need more support & solidarity
(@RedCanarySong, April 10).
Long-standing stereotypes and biases in the mainstream
media landscape, such as the model minority myth which
casts Asians as upwardly mobile and economically successful, have tended to depict Asian Americans as homogeneous.
However, Asian American activists have long worked to
counter these perceptionsas a collective identity, Asian
America was formed out of political movements during the
Civil Rights era, in solidarity with Black liberation movements. In emphasizing intersectionality and challenging
Asian America as a monolith, participants also called for
building intra-community and cross-community solidarities. During the Tweetchat, rather than approach the lack of
resources from tenets of individualism premised upon scarcity and intra-group competition, participants observed that
pan-Asian collective action would benefit all Asian
Americans during this time. For example, Nodutdol (2020),
a grassroots Korean organization against war and militarism, shared that the pandemic cuts across race and class .
. . As anti-Asian racism is on the rise again, we also need to
acknowledge how Black and Brown communities are disproportionately being affected [] to build cross-community solidarity (@Nodutdol, 2020, 10 April). Rather than
take individual identity and recognition as a starting point,
intersectional methods countering oppressive structures
produce community formations in spite of (or because of)
difference (Nash, 2019).
Participants identified racial tensions between communities of color, including how anti-Blackness within Asian
American communities remains conspicuous during a time
when Asian Americans are targets of racial hostilitythe
perspectives of Black Asians are notably largely missing
from this dialogue. Participants stressed the need to show
up for other impacted communities, highlighting the need
for solidarity work between Asian Americans and medically
Kuo et al. 7
vulnerable populations disproportionately impacted by
COVID-19. Under externalized stress and grief during the
coronavirus pandemic, this moment has seen tensions
between narrow bids for inclusion and access to resources as
well as calls to build across differences. In foregrounding
difference, participants within the #FeministAntibodies
Tweetchat outlined a vision for collective formation that
emphasized community interdependence.
Community is GrowingCollectivity and
Interdependence
It means breaking social norms instilled in us, embracing
intimacy, sharing vulnerable spaces. It means re-centering
collectivism and making sure everyone has a space in the world
we want to create together. (Chau, 2020b, April 10)
The Tweetchat highlighted interdependence between
individuals, families, and communities despite government
neglect. Participants emphasized the importance of community-based mutual aid networks in responding to governmental indifference and emphasized models of caring
for each other by sharing resources and support. For example, Shahana Hanif (2020), a language justice advocate,
highlighted the importance of community translation and
interpretation to not only expand immigrant access to
resources but also create a culture of shifting power,
expand democratic participation, and [center] the wellness
and survival of the most disenfranchised communities (@
ShahanaFromBK, 10 April).
In addition, in a moment of social and economic crisis, participants countered neoliberal individualism, which values
individual responsibility, by presenting a feminist framework
of interdependency and collective accountability to one
another. Many acknowledged the need to carve out a space to
heal, while asserting that productivity did not equate to
wortha direct critique of and movement against capitalist
notions of labor which alienates workers from their own
humanity in service of economic profit (hooks, 1990).
Disabled artist and activist and Bluestockings volunteer
Matilda Sabal (2020) highlighted practices of interdependency
to build intimacy across distance and isolation, drawing on the
long legacy of disability justice movements: calling friends
& comrades, coworking over Zoom, building space for rest
and joy . . . the revolutionary work can be done anywhere,
even your bed (@fierce_invalids, 10 April). The emphasis on
creating space for rest and joy through the uses of different
technologies decenters notions of individual productivity.
Such a pivot counters social relations structured by capitalism.
In this vein, participants also emphasize care work and reproductive labor in their digital practices as a means of community supportthe work of physically, materially, and
emotionally preparing people to continue revolutionizing
(Federici, 2012). Participants stressed the need to prioritize
health and wellness as an essential part of organizing, as no
activist movement can function if its members are burnt out.
Participants also spoke of feeling politically re-energized
to mobilize with other people during this time. Scholar and
activist Kim Tran (2020) shared the hope that people (re)
commit to movement work . . . and focus on building people
power, building with each other (@but_im_kim_tran, 10
April). The theme of interdependence in this Tweetchat draws
heavily from Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, whose
writing on building care webs and mutual aid networks is also
heavily featured within AAFCs zine. Drawing from the disability justice movement, Piepzna-Samarasinha (2018) intervenes on of rapid response,
often deployed in the midst of crisis, by highlighting the
necessity for models of collective organizing that center sustainability, slowness, and building for the long haul (p. 53).
Participants observed that in the wake of disaster, rather than
formal institutions responding directly or quickly to community needs, local grassroots organizations led community
recovery. These groups have few resources but hold deep
knowledge of a specific neighborhood and build infrastructures and networks for aid and support (Hong, 2012).
A World Built for All of UsConnecting Pasts,
Presents, Futures
Community care over capital gain . . . A world built for all of us
and run by all of us. (Asian American Feminist Collective, 2020c,
April 10)
Participants discussed how histories of racial violence
have facilitated the creation of spaces where disabled, trans,
and economically disadvantaged people were not prioritized.
The third theme that we identified from the Tweetchat highlighted how participants relied on their historical knowledge
to make sense of the current COVID-19 outbreak, using history to drive their analyses and articulate their political positioning. They drew on these histories to generate imaginations
for future worlds and possibilities. For example, Lausan
(2020), a Hong Kong magazine, described the trauma of the
SARS outbreak in 2003 and how mutual care practices
undertaken during coronavirus are in our collective muscle
memory (@LausanHK, April 10). Alison Roh Park (2020),
a poet and writer, shared that she woke up feeling intergenerational aches in my bones (@alisonrohpark, April 10).
The description of bodily memory as a visceral response to
this moment demonstrates the embodiment of geohistorical
politics of knowledge (Yoneyama, 2016). As people detailed
the increase in harassment in their communities, they traced
these painful experiences to transnational histories of colonization. For example, Heena Sharma (2020b) reflects on histories of genocide between Asian communities that has led to
present-day Hindu nationalist rhetoric further endangering
the lives of Muslims who are being used as a scapegoat for
8 Social Media + Society
this pandemic (Sharma, 2020b, April 10). Participants
reconstructed trauma narratives that transcend generations as
embedded in collective memory, and share creative strategies of remembering (Kwan, 2020).
For many participants, the fear-mongering racist language from the Trump administration blam[ing] China
for their own mishandling of the pandemic and observations that Asian Americans are bearing the brunt of xenophobic attacks (@DrHStilley, Kelly, 2020, 10 April)
extended a long history of xenophobic racism in the United
States, marked by the passage of events such as the Page
Act, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and the Japanese
internment during the Second World War, where Asian
bodies represented a threat to the purity of (White) Western
society in the form of Yellow Peril (Lee, 2007; Shah,
2001). In these cases, the circulation of information about
who is deemed undesirable and unassimilable, from the
stereotyping of Chinese immigrants as more likely to carry
disease to the racialized constructions of Asians as threats
and terrorists, has furthered racist projects of exclusion
through anti-immigration and carceral policies. Drawing
on the longer history of how Asians have been racialized as
scapegoats in times of crisis, participants underlined a
commonality of experience while also attempting to problematize the perpetual foreigner trope that reinforces the
superiority and nativism of Eurocentric whiteness (Cheryan
and Monin, 2005).
The Wing Luke Museum (2020) described the present
moment as American cultural amnesia in action (@winglukemuseum, April 10). Here, the museum counters liberal erasures of historical violence in the pursuit of limited
freedoms. Participants interrogated the present by calling
attention to past conditions of injustice, as well imagining
future possibilities, or freedoms yet to come (Lowe,
2015). The Tweetchat offered what Betina Hsieh (2020)
described as an affinity space that allowed participants
to unpack histories of oppression that make the disparities
in this moment historically predictable and not an anomaly (@ProfHsieh, 10 April). Hsieh also added that we can
only build solidarities if we know our own histories, the
ways in which weve bought into white supremacy, benefited from privilege and known oppressions (@ProfHsieh,
10 April). In this vein, Tweetchat participants use historical recovery as a means to hold institutions of power more
accountable. As historian Salonee Bhaman (2020) tweeted,
We have to build a language of solidarity and find a way
to hold power accountable to those who are most vulnerable (@saloneee, 10 April).
Discussion: Making Feminist Politics
The #FeministAntibodies Tweetchat offered a particular
alignment of race in a technocultural space, namely a specific orientation to Asian American collective politics. As
information environments, digital platforms offer a site of
political performance for collectives and individual actors to
articulate politics (Hall & Grossberg, 1986) and draw connections across differences at a particular conjuncture. The
ways specific organizations, campaigns, and individuals
mediate Asian American politics through discursive uses of
platforms across different epistemological standpoints
(Brock, 2016) demonstrate a particular orientation to Asian
America as a political home and identity as well as the making and remaking of identity through technologies.
Facilitating together-ness in the midst of the COVID-19
pandemic has also shifted how digital connections become
materialized. Recounting coordinating efforts to be together
online with other people at a given time reveals the work
involved in building a shared political home in digital space.
By highlighting the friendships and relationships embedded
within social movements and across technologies, we can see
that digitally networked communications are not moments of
seemingly spontaneous eruption, but instead involve both
coordination work and deeper relationship building over time.
An observation and corresponding question that continues to emerge is the following: our current society is brokenso what is the society we desire for the future? This
present moment of crisis and instability reveals a lot about
what possibilities the future can hold, or how systems and
institutions can and must be transformed. During the pandemic, social movements that have often been deemed as
impractical or impossible suddenly seem within reach: free
Internet, decarceration, eviction moratoriums, rent freezes,
and loan payment suspensions can be possible. Through the
discussion of intersectionality and interdependence, participants offered a critique of power, identifying the multiple
ways that systems of racism and capitalism harm people
collectively and how we might work together to imagine
new systems.
Furthermore, bringing different histories together under
the #FeministAntibodies hashtag discursively mobilizes solidarities across differences. For example, Asian communities
are often excluded from dominant discourses on incarceration, preventing cross-community solidarity. Free Them All
(2020), a decarceration campaign, pointed out, all forms of
incarceration harm all of us (Free Them All for Public
Health, 2020, April 10). Participants drew upon different histories of state violence as a means toward building future
coalitions. The Tweetchat ended with a question prompting
participants to imagine future worlds, where participants
brought together their previous discussions of intersectionality, interdependence, and history. Many posts focused on
community-based organizing as a strategy toward abolishing
and transforming present institutions and systems.
With an economy of hearts and likes, activism on digital
spaces can sometimes be a humming positivity machine
(Ryan, 2016) through the discursive circulation of happy
words about community. As an immersive information
environment that encourages infinite scrolling, Twitter also
functions as a medium of compression, transmitting ideas
Kuo et al. 9
in 280 characters or less. However, looking beyond the content of the Tweets themselves to bring in both historical
context as well as discussion of the labor and process that
generated them emphasizes how digital objects function as
a medium where questions of identity and inequality are
worked out and how relationships are made and built
through conceptualizing and circulating writing and ideas.
The level of curation and moderation of the Tweetchat does
not afford for broad representations of Asian America, but
instead articulates a specific vision of what Asian American
collective politics might be.
Conclusion
The Asian American Feminist Collectives zine and corresponding Tweetchat digitally circulate the intergenerational
arguments, histories, languages, and ideas that have shaped
Asian American movement building and Asian American
studies across multiple decades. Initiated alongside the ethnic studies as part of social justice movements in the 1960s
and 1970s, Asian American studies originated as an academic field of study in the midst of racial and political crisis
(Suyemoto & Liu, 2018). Yet, as a field and as a political
concept, Asian American also faced critical problems,
including the tension between homogenizing Asian
American and navigating internal diversity. The contradictions surrounding Asian American collective politics in the
larger digital information environment during the COVID19 pandemic indicate political and intellectual tensions
around how we build collective politics in ways that continue
to account for uneven differences. As a political orientation
and political home, Asian America is continuously in the
midst of rebuildingand now, rebuilding across digital platforms. The recursive pull of Asian American political identity in navigating differences in the process of narrating
collective politics has been central to how Asian America
continues to form and reform, including in our digital spaces.
As examples of cultural politics across platforms, the zine
and Tweetchat demonstrate an orientation to Asian America
that reflects upon and responds to sociocultural and political
histories. The process of political expression and content circulation through the curation of particular interlocutors across
different technological and discursive forms produced a specific vision of Asian American politics. The threads emerging
from these conversations function as forms of alignment and
being in line with others (Ahmed, 2006, p. 15). As highlighted by both contributors to the zine and participants in the
Tweetchat, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed both the
ongoing precarities of everyday existence in our communities
as well as exposing who is unevenly at risk when social safety
nets fail. While this moment is unique, activists and community organizers emphasize that we have also been here
before. As expressed in the manifold community resources
that circulate online, people marginalized by state violence
hold extensive experience and knowledge on how to survive
despite precarity and scarcity. Furthermore, these forms of
knowledge also envision ideas on how to radically change systems so they no longer continue to render particular communities and people disposable.
As scholars and media-makers using collaboration as a
feminist method, we emphasize the necessity of communitybased research projects that interrogate ongoing inequalities
at the intersection of race, technology, labor, and migration.
Continuing to extend scholarly arguments on the relationship
between media and politics, we see community forms of
knowledge production as central to intellectual and political
inquiry. This study focuses on organizing during March and
April 2020; with the long-lasting duration of the pandemic,
future studies can further investigate shifts in processes of
community organizing during crisis. Significantly, with
uprisings beginning at the end of May 2020 in the wake of
continued police violence against Black people and ongoing
structural anti-Black racism, further attention should be paid
to relational theorizations of race, including in studies of
technology and social movements. This particular study also
focuses on a small network of Asian American feminist
media practitioners. As a distinctly Asian American form of
media production, this particular study does not include critical engagements with Asian migrant and diasporic communities. Given how immigrants are uniquely positioned as
vulnerable during this time, with matters such as immigration status and visas becoming increasingly politicized,
future research in this sphere should engage these communities. To further understand and study the digital information
environment in which Asian and Asian American politics
form during the ongoing pandemic, future research could
also look to media practices across diasporic platforms and
networks. For example, the Chinese social media app
WeChat functions as an alternative site to further examine
collective politics. Furthermore, the intersectionality of
Asian America could also be seen through testimonials and
other media practices by domestic workers and taxi drivers
impacted by the gig economy, sharing economy, and ondemand service apps.
As revealed by yet-increasing cases, hospitalizations, and
deaths across the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic
will have long-lasting implications on our communities, and
we are only beginning to see the devastating social and economic impacts of the crisis. If we are pedagogically committed to redressing unequal differences in service of future
world-building, this requires building alongside grassroots
communities on the frontlines in shaping the meaning of
Asian America as a formation.
Acknowledgements
The authors would like to extend a thank you to the Care in the
Time of Coronavirus zine co-editors, Salonee Bhaman (AAFC),
Matilda Sabal (Bluestockings), and Tiffany Diane Tso (AAFC), as
well as additional co-leaders of the Asian American Feminist
Collective, Julie Ae Kim and Senti Sojwal. They appreciate the
10 Social Media + Society
time and contributions of all participants in the #FeministAntibodies
Tweetchat. In addition, they would like to thank other members of
the AAPI COVID-19 Project collaborative research group, including Catherine Nguyen, Christina Ong, Susanna Park, Kara Takasaki,
Mu Wu, and Liwei Zhang, as well as Jason Beckfield for ongoing
support of their research.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect
to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
Funding
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
ORCID iD
Rachel Kuo https://orcid.org/0000-0002-6918-8916
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Author Biographies
Rachel Kuo (PhD, New York University) is a Postdoctoral Research
Fellow at the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life
at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research
focuses on race, social movements, and digital technology.
Amy Zhang (MA, University of Texas at Austin) is a doctoral student in Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research
interests include social relationships and health at the intersections
of gender, race, and immigration status.
Vivian Shaw (PhD, University of Texas at Austin) is a College
Fellow at the Department of Sociology at Harvard University. Her
interests are in the areas of race, gender, and sexuality in relation to
disasters, the environment and social movements.
Cynthia Wang (PhD, University of Southern California Annenberg)
is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at California
State University, Los Angeles. She is interested in the impact of
digital media on social relations framed in perspectives of time and
temporality.


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