From ‘Networked Publics’ to ‘Refracted Publics’

I am pleased to announce that I have a new journal article out in Social Media + Society:

Abidin, Crystal. 2021. “From ‘networked publics’ to ‘refracted publics’: A companion framework for researching ‘below the radar’ studies.” Social Media + Society 7(1): 1-13. DOI: 10.1177/2056305120984458 <Open Access

This article is developed from the opening keynote that I gave at the inaugural Association of Internet Researchers Flashpoint Symposium in Urbino, Italy, in June 2019. A recording of my keynote is available here (23:49–1:35:24).

A selection of papers from the event are being published in a Special Issue of Social Media + Society: ‘Below the Radar: Private Groups, Locked Platforms, and Ephemeral Content’. Read the introduction by co-editors Giovanni Boccia Artieri, Stefano Brilli, and Elisabetta Zurovac here.

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In this piece, I update technology and social media scholar danah boyd’s foundational work on “networked publics” to offer the framework of “refracted publics”.

I consider my choice of vocabulary – ‘refracted publics’ – a labor of love. It was, after all, inspired by the hundreds of hours spent listening to my fishing enthusiast of a partner muse over strategic theories and folklore. Standing on shore, a fisherman’s view of the catch in the water differs from what is actually happening beneath. Even if armed with the best reels and rods and the knowledge of customizing them, the layer of water functions as a deflective lens or barrier that distorts or impedes a fisherman’s access to the catch. To get around this, a fisherman must acquaint themselves with physics and the nature of light to account for necessary adjustments, or better yet, switch from sight-fishing from shore to sonar-fishing from a boat to increase the success of yield.

In a similar vein, refracted publics consider the conditions of spaces as they are manipulated by users to enhance, deflect, or deter detection. Refracted publics are publics that are circumvented by users. They are simultaneously (1) the space constructed out of the desire for refracted perceptions and (2) the collection of subversive or circumvention practices as a result of analogue and algorithmic manipulations of vision and access.

Refracted publics allow users and their content to avoid detection by non-target human eyeballs and machine vision, to promote deflection to smokescreens or alternative attention bait, and still facilitate the dissemination of messages in an expansive and accessible way. This usually occurs through private groups, locked platforms, or ephemeral contents. In essence, the cultures of refracted publics are shaped by circumvention and “off-label uses” (Albury & Byron, 2016) and allow users to remain “below the radar”.

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In the table above, I introduce the framework of refracted publics. It comprises four conditions:

  1. Transience: Online expressions are mechanically and agentically ephemeral
  2. Discoverability: Content in refraction publics is unknowable until chanced upon
  3. Decodability: Content can be duplicated but may not be contextually intelligible
  4. Silosociality: Intended visibility of content is intensely communal and localized

And three dynamics:

  1. Impactful audiences: Both human and machine audiences are present and, though not always visible to a user, necessarily shape self-presentation and engagements
  2. Weaponized contexts: Distinct socio-cultural contexts are intentionally collapsed to generate potential for reappropriation
  3. Alternating the public/private: With the interference of platform features and algorithmic unpredictability, public and private and not stable categories, are shaped in new ways

While “networked publics” arose from media and communication studies of social network sites during the decade of the 2000s, focused on platforms, infrastructure, and affordances, “refracted publics” is birthed from anthropological and sociological studies of internet user cultures during the decade of the 2010s, focused on agentic and circumventive adaptations of what platforms offer them.

Specifically, refracted publics that have been transformed by an internet culture of the 2010s comprising:

  1. Perpetual content saturation, where outlets are overcrowded and overwhelmed with a continuous flow of information which impedes meaningful consumption and results in an infodemic
  2. Hyper-competitive attention economies, where a variety of content strands are vying for viewer attention and constantly overshadowing each other
  3. Gamified and datafied metric cultures, where the performance of social media producers, contents, and platforms are measured by quantitative footprints rather than qualitative engagements
  4. Information distrust, where users have wavering confidence and belief in the credibility of information sources that are often polarizing

In the article, I present a brief overview of my studies on the evolution of Influencer cultures from which the framework of refracted publics and their repertoire of strategies were drawn. I categorize these studies into three stages of research and fieldsite maturity:

  1. Influencer cultures as a job description and culture of practice
  2. Influencer cultures as a concept and role
  3. Influencer cultures as amplification platforms

The article closes with a series of case studies demonstrating the strategies utilized in cultures of refracted publics, including:

  1. Self-amplification groups intended to coordinate analogue action to trigger the algorithm into prioritizing their posts in explore or discover pages or news feed (e.g., Instagram pods, Twitter decks, Facebook circles)
  2. Hashtag jacking to occupy, hijack, or create trending hashtags to redirect attention to another cause (e.g., content spamming, grief hypejacking, manufacturing trending)
  3. SEO spotlighting and shadowing that toys with search engine optimization (SEO) by casting spotlights or shadows on specific topics, and rely on the longtail free labor of followers to optimize or suppress search trends and results (e.g., witching hour, screengrabbing, internet paralanguages)
  4. Social steganography that skillfully encodes and embeds layers of meaning and subtext into an integrated piece of content (e.g., Vague-booking and Insta-vagueing, Dog whistling and Parallel literacies, Breadcrumbs and Easter eggs, Memes)
  5. Sentiment seeding to insidiously warm up and soften public reception to specific ideas, to shape and guide their slow, subtle, but stealthy acceptance to them (e.g., meme factories, astroturfing, internet brigades)
  6. Clickbait comprising strategically designed teasers intended to attract viewer attention, extend viewer interest, and facilitate viewer action through ambiguous, provocative, or misleading textual or visual content (e.g., Controversial subjects, Optical illusions)

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I am deeply appreciative of the Urbino AoIR Flashpoint Symposium committee for their invitation to develop this work, extremely warm Italian hospitality, and their continued dedication to seeing this Special Issue to completion: Fabio Giglietto, Laura Gemini, Giovanni Boccia Artieri, Manolo Farci, Stefano Brilli, Elisabetta Zurovac, Giada Marino, Nicola Righetti. Thank you also to the participants of the #AoIRfps19 and the subsequent reflection session at #AoIR2019 in Brisbane, for their insightful questions and feedback. My special thanks go to Fabio and Giovanni for their mentorship of and belief in the work of junior scholars, and my super special thanks go to Stefano and Elisabetta for their editorial assistance and encouragement for seeing this paper to completion.

This paper draws from the author’s research on Influencer cultures between 2009 and 2020, during which several small grants and institutes supported various aspects of the fieldwork. In particular, the author would like to acknowledge the most recent funding from the Australian Research Council (DE190100789) for supporting current and forthcoming research on Social Media Influencers as Conduits of Knowledge in Australia and Asia

/C

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