Rather belatedly, something interesting struck me about the furore in the UK a week or so ago over a tweet sent by Emily Thornberry, now the ex shadow attorney general. For those of you with short memories or not UK-media-aware, Thornberry’s tweet was criticised for being contemptuous of working-class voters, and she resigned from her shadow cabinet role after a couple of conversations with her party leader.
Here is the tweet (and notice the text as well as the photo):
In the online discussion of the tweet, loads of things were happening, of course, but there was something about the whole dynamic of the discussion that I thought was intriguing: the way the tweet swung in and out of being seen as ‘representing’ something.
On the one hand, there were a lot of claims – including by Emily Thornberry herself – that the image was meaningless. It meant nothing; the scene had just struck her as something that could be shared on Twitter. Now, we could discuss the conditions under which certain things become noticeable and photographable, of course, but still, given how so many photos are put onto social media in just that way, not as meaning anything, just as a sort of ‘oh look’ statement, ‘I am here’, ‘that is here’, I think her claim has some credibility. Perhaps it really wasn’t an image that meant anything, it wasn’t symbolic, it was purely descriptive, just a picture of a van and flags, a pure “Image from #Rochester”.
Its status as pure description also prompted a lot of online discussion about how photographs become meaningful rather than inherently carrying meaning as well. So on the other hand, huge amounts of online work went into interpreting the meanings the tweet implied. The flags, the van, the location: all were decoded, re-coded, explicated, interpreted, repeatedly, by very very many people. And so were the processes through which all that interpretive work was being done, because there was also a lot of discussion about the sort of coverage given to the tweet in and by different media outlets.
Noortje Marres has been interviewed on the excellent LSE Impact blog about digital sociology, and a point she makes very well there is that the tools and techniques of social analysis are now widely distributed among many kinds of social actors. As she says, “social actors, practices and events are increasingly and explicitly oriented towards social analysis and are actively involved in it (in collecting and analysing data, applying metrics, eliciting feed-back, and so on)”. She is particularly referring to the digital tools embedded in social media platforms, the internet of things, online transaction databases and the like.
But one of the things that the Thornberry tweet affair made evident to me was that the same might be said of the tools of cultural interpretation. Textual and visual analysis, and an understanding of the significance of the role of the media – in the strict sense of the term – are alive and kicking pretty much everywhere, it felt like, as the vigorous debated unfolded. The furore was a sort of mass cultural studies seminar. And if cultural studies has gone viral, what are the implications for those of us who do it – possibly more carefully, certainly much more slowly – in the academy?