Chapter 11: Editing and Evolving the Thesis and Outline


Article: “FCJ-194 From #RaceFail to #Ferguson: The Digital Intimacies of Race-Activist Hashtag Publics”

Author: Nathan Rambukanna (Wilfred Laurier University)

Abstract: This paper explores the rough, emergent and partial public culture of race-activist hashtags through the discourses of #RaceFail, a critical race quarrel that started in the sci-fi and fantasy blogosphere, and expanded from there into a broader, sustained discussion over social media; and #Ferguson, a recent race-activist hashtag raising issues around censorship, filtering and ‘gated discourse’. It ends with a discussion of how the frictions between the neoliberal desire to reduce hashtag publics to product publicity, and the activist desire to use hashtags to further public sphere awareness of political issues, is exemplified in the controversy over Facebook’s ‘algorithmic filtering’ of #Ferguson, and how, nevertheless, critical race hashtags are tapping into a developing tradition of vocal social media–supported dissent.

Having read the article, let’s pull out some paragraphs that are crucial to our reading of our primary evidence and that we will work with, in conjunction with the McCosker and Johns article, to further develop our third storey, the political usefulness/viability of Facebook pages.

Rambukanna writes:

In fact, since the dawn of the Internet age, discussion of the democratic potential of Internet-mediated space has been one of the major top level conversations. Yet a lot of that discussion gets mired in an orthodox Habermasian take on what we should consider a democratic public sphere—that is, one where rational critical discourse on matters of societal importance (such as, most critically, the actions of the State) can take place; populated by citizens stepping out of their private roles as interested individuals and into a public space where they become participants in disinterested discussion and debate (Habermas, 1962).

While one can argue the merits of Habermas’s public sphere, what of the other kinds of discussion and debate that are facilitated by networked technology? Taking its cue from critical public sphere theorists such as Nancy Fraser (1992) and Michael Warner (2002), this paper explores those other publics: more-or-less subaltern, more-or-less rational, more-or-less critical, and almost certainly partial, affective, interested and loud. The paper is interested in angry publics. It is interested in fringe publics. It’s interested in the kinds of publics that do politics in a way that is rough and emergent, flawed and messy, and ones in which new forms of collective power are being forged on the fly, and in the shadow of loftier mainstream spheres. These are the publics born of frictions, in Anna Tsing’s sense, ‘the awkward, unequal, unstable and creative qualities of interconnection across difference’ (2005: 4).

The political role of communication media cannot, therefore, be to ‘fix’ a broken system of public sphere communication, but rather to ‘un-fix’ staid communication patterns, to re-figure the public conversation about important issues and topics (such as inequality, racism, sexism and abuses of power) with a view to cracking open stable systems of meaning-making, and working—as Peters reminds us we need to do (1999: 30)—to build better communication across and between cultural and subcultural spaces. We need to work with and through the ‘productive friction[s] of global encounters’ (Tsing, 2005: 3), to tap the unpredictable and raw energy that is concomitant with our increasing interconnection.


As we did with the McCosker and Johns article, we will need clarify some details in the above source that are more or less implicit and that we will want to expand on before applying this secondary source to our thesis. For one, we need to ask, what is the nature of “a democratic public sphere”? How does it engage in political discourse? Moreover, if communication in these public spheres is indeed “broken,” as Rambukanna suggests, then what is their political value? What can we hope to derive from online communities engaged in political discourses?

Rambukanna clearly states that “democratic public spheres,” where online political communities engage in democratic discourses, are not places where people engage in “rational critical discourse” on socio-political issues. Moreover, such politicized individuals are also not “disinterested” in their political interactions or in “debates.” In other words, they are “impassioned,” to quote McCosker and Johns. In fact, for Ramabakunna, these individuals are “partial,” (read: highly subjective, biased or narrow-minded) “affective,” (read: emotional or impassioned) “interested,” (read: engaged) “loud” (read: boisterous, vulgar and rowdy) and their political engagement style is “rough and emergent, flawed and messy.” They are “angry” online political communities “born of friction,” meaning they are disorderly, sometimes hostile and discordant online spaces where conflicting and divergent viewpoints are the norm.

Rambukanna’s view of “public democratic spheres” is similar to McCosker and Johns’ depiction of online communities. The authors would agree on the nature of the political discourse and communication that occurs online on sites like the Occupy Wall Street Facebook page. It is discontinuous—not dialogical—impassioned, “insular” or “partial” and often vulgar, even insulting. They accept this nature of communication as more or less normal—to be expected—for public spaces are not, as Ramabukanna argues, spaces where “interested” individuals participate in “rational critical discourse” or “disinterested discussion and debate” on political issues. The authors also concur that these flawed and volatile online spaces are still engaging in valuable discussions. Rambukanna acknowledges soberly that “public sphere communication” is “broken” and technology or “communication media” cannot solve or “fix” it, but it can “‘un-fix’ staid communication patterns, to re-figure the public conversation about important issues and topics…cracking open stable systems of meaning-making.” For Rambukanna, the only way to challenge systems of inequality is to work through the “friction” and diverging viewpoints and harness the passion of committed individuals to work for change. Here, his ideas are very much aligned with McCosker and Johns, who suggest that impassioned and “vitriolic” speech can be “productive” and addressed legitimately through public discourse before said speech escalates into violence.

To return to our thesis and the third storey, keeping in mind both McCosker and Johns’ and Rambukanna’s understanding of online communication, we might qualify our thesis as follows:

Example three-storey thesis

Occupy Wall Street’s Facebook page showcases some flaws as users of the space have a difficult time breaking away from their own “villages” in order to link those global events to their local concerns. This is demonstrated by the comment field under the post “From #Ferguson to #Gaza #BLM,” wherein discussion of the event turns to users calling each other names like “idiots” and wondering aloud about the two topics are related (ex. The post “What the hell does BLM have to do with geopolitics in the Middle East?”) rather than discussing the event promoted in the original post. Such interaction in this space demonstrates that while Facebook pages do provide a useful tool for distributing information and bringing large tribes together, users often struggle to attach that awareness to action or viewpoints beyond local/personal concerns or interests; instead of users speaking to each other in an attempt to foster stronger global connections and consciousness, users often end up posting their own disconnected content and/or insulting content without the necessary conversation around the complex topics posted. The Occupy Wall Street Facebook page’s tendency to strengthen local connections while weakening links to larger social and political contexts acts as an indicator that despite the increased reach of an online community, insularity, hostility and discord among its users, which is typical of both on- and offline communication, could potentially affect its ability to influence governmental policy and provide a base for civilian power. As Anthony McCosker and Amelia Johns note in “Productive Provocations: Vitriolic Media, Spaces of Protest and Agonistic Outrage in the 2011 England Riots,” while examining the online discourse around the violent protests in England in 2011,  such online comments “remain almost primarily dissociated, impassioned expressions relaying a range of points of view without an internal dialogical order.” Yet they are also confirmation that communication does not “naturally invite understanding, connection or societal harmony—despite a common [mis]conception that this is the case,” as Nathan Rambukanna underscores in “FCJ-194 From #RaceFail to #Ferguson: The Digital Intimacies of Race-Activist Hashtag Publics”. Users then who wish to turn the Internet into an effective tool designed to provide a counterpoint to corrupt, dictatorial, or simply misguided governments will need to address this insularity and attempt to ensure that the broad reach of the social-media platform does not replace the broadness in scope of the movement itself. They will also, as Rambukanna says, need to work “to build better communication,” despite the inherent volatility and fractiousness of such communities and the diverging viewpoints expressed therein, if they wish to foster dialogue and connection leading to the creation of new political networks of change. As McCosker and Johns claim, properly attuned, such dialogues “can be conceptualised as acts of multiple initiations—of a space of protest, of a constitutive public, of passionate expression of the conditions of existence, of provocations for further exchange.”