…and then the world

the 2017 that was


2017… 2017… to be honest, so much has happened in 2018, as I finally put this list together, that 2017 seems a distant memory: I’ve moved to the other side of the world to start a new job, and so much has been going on I barely remember last month let alone last year.

In addition to the publications, which I have already mentioned on here and are listed below (although only one is called ‘Never gonna GIF you up‘), a few major things stand out; first, our ARC Discovery proposal ‘Digital media, location awareness, and the politics of geodata’ was successful and funded for three years (2018-2020, AUD $324,720); the project features as CIs Peta Mitchell and myself from QUT and Larissa Hjorth from RMIT, and as PIs Agnieszka Leszczynski (Auckland) and Paul Dourish (UC-Irvine).

Second, I spent a month in Bremen, Germany, as a visiting research fellow at the ZeMKI, where I got to work on my ‘digital time’ project and participate in the Mediatization of Time conference — and in general just enjoy the research culture of the ZeMKI and being in northern Germany in winter!

Third, I coordinated the 2017 DMRC Summer School, with 37 PhD and early-career researchers coming to Brisbane for digital methods, research training, and plenty more (the 2018 event has already happened, so this feels especially weird to talk about now).

Fourth, I made my Sydney Opera House debut as a panelist at the Antidote Festival (the successor to the Festival of Dangerous Ideas); I was part of the ‘Creating online chaos‘ session with an amazing line-up of Celeste Liddle, Reni Eddo-Lodge, and Van Badham, with Steph Harmon chairing.

(plus, the 2016 article I co-authored with Tama Leaver on Instagrammatics, digital methods, and visual social media won ‘best research article’ at Curtin University’s 2016 Humanities Research Awards).

And finally, I was invited to keynote for the first time, speaking about visual social media for the University of Amsterdam’s Digital Methods Initiative (DMI) Summer School and also running a masterclass and workshops… and, half a year later, I’m back in Amsterdam in my new role as Assistant Professor in New Media at UvA… but that’s another topic…


Published in 2017



Jean Burgess, Peta Mitchell, and Tim Highfield: ‘Automating the digital everyday: an introduction’. Media International Australia (‘Automating the Everyday’ special issue; online first)

Peta Mitchell and Tim Highfield: ‘Mediated geographies of everyday life—navigating the ambient, augmented and algorithmic geographies of geomedia’. Ctrl-Z: New Media Philosophy, 7.

Kate M. Miltner and Tim Highfield: ‘Never gonna GIF you up: Analyzing the cultural significance of the animated GIF’. Social Media + Society, 3(3). doi:10.1177/2056305117725223



Tim Highfield: ‘Histories of blogging’. In G. Goggin & M. McLelland (Eds.), Routledge Companion to Global Internet Histories. Routledge, pp. 331-342.
Tim Highfield: ‘Social TV and depictions of community on social media: Instagram and Eurovision fandom’. In P. Messaris & L. Humphreys (Eds.), Digital Media: Transformations in human communication (second edition). Peter Lang, pp. 156-165.


Other writing

‘Social media and everyday politics, re-examined’ (cross-posted on Medium / Culture Digitally)



Talks + presentations

‘Socially mediated moments and memories: Now, then, and the tangled temporality of digital media’, Mediatization of Time conference, Bremen, Germany, 7-8 December 2017.

‘ICYMI, while you were away: Temporal platformed interventions in the digital everyday’. ZeMKI, University of Bremen, 6 December 2017.

‘ICYMI, while you were away: The digital intimacy of temporal platformed interventions’, Digital Intimacies symposium, Melbourne 13-15 November 2017.

Ariadna Matamoros-Fernández, Felix Münch, and Tim Highfield. ‘More than meets the eye: Understanding networks of images in controversies around racism on social media’. AoIR 2017, Tartu, 18-21 October 2017.

‘#BlackLivesMatter to #dogsatpollingstations (but not #CrookedHillary): Platform privilege and the affective politics of hashflags’, Affective Politics symposium, Turku, Finland, 12-13 October 2017.

Kate M. Miltner and Tim Highfield. ‘Never Gonna GIF You Up: Analyzing the cultural significance of the animated GIF’. Columbia University. 14 September 2017.

‘Visual cultures and politics of social media’, Oxford University: Oxford Internet Institute Summer Doctoral Programme. July 2017.

Stephen Harrington, Axel Bruns, and Tim Highfield. ‘#infotainment and the impact of “connective action”: The case of #milkeddry’. ANZCA 2017, Sydney, July 2017.

‘Instagrammatics, visual social media, and digital methods’, keynote for University of Amsterdam Digital Methods Initiative Summer School. 26 June 2017.

‘Social media and everyday politics, re-examined: The impact of fake news, the alt-right, and the clickbait president’. ICA ‘Populism, Post-Truth Politics and Participatory Culture’ pre-conference, San Diego, 25-26 May 2017.

Tim Highfield and Peta Mitchell. ‘Algorithmic Surveillance and Urban Ambient Geodata’. AAG, Boston, 5-9 April 2017.

‘The GIF and News Coverage: Remediated, Remixed, and Reimagined’. SCMS, Chicago, 22-26 March 2017.



Media and public events

Panelist, ‘Creating online chaos’. Antidote Festival, Sydney Opera House, 3 September 2017.

Panelist, ‘Democracy, politics, and the popular’. Brisbane Powerhouse, 31 August 2017.

April 2017: Wired, ‘Don’t Look Now, But Extremists’ Meme Armies Are Turning Into Militias’ by Emma Grey Ellis (interview)

Chair, ‘Digital Media Unplugged: Have social media ruined everything?’ Brisbane Powerhouse, February 2017.




Digital Methods (University of Melbourne, February 2017)
Instagrammatics (developed with Tama Leaver) (University of Amsterdam DMI Summer School, June 2017)
‘Instagrammatics and beyond’ masterclass (University of Amsterdam DMI Summer School, June 2017).
Digital Methods pre-conference (with Axel Bruns, Stefanie Duguay, Ariadna Matamoros-Fernández, Brenda Moon, and Felix Münch) (AoIR2017, Tartu, October 2017).
Digital Methods (University of Bremen, December 2017)


Coordinator, DMRC Summer School 2017 (QUT, February 2017).



around the world

38 flights (195072 km, or, ~4.87x around the world; 10 days 21:07 flight time) + long-distance trains
eight countries (Australia, USA, Netherlands, UK, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Germany)

Social media and everyday politics, re-examined


In April last year, my first book, Social Media and Everyday Politics, was published. It was based on the various research projects I’d carried out for my PhD and beyond, between 2008 and 2015. I’m very proud of it, particularly in attempting to challenge my own work and perspective by featuring a wider range of topics — while still distilling them into a 65,000-word book.

The book has only been out for a year, but something it inadvertantly demonstrates is the rate of change when it comes to discussing social media and politics, both in concert and individually. For instance: there is not a single mention of Trump in the book. I finished writing in May 2015, and even after revisions and proofing Trump had not become the presumptive Republican nominee, while the topics du jour of fake news, filter bubbles, and the alt right were still not the major talking points they are today. Indeed, Tony Abbott was still Prime Minister of Australia at that point…

And yet, despite all the changes and political upheaval seen with Trump, Brexit, and the like, the argument that I set forth in Social Media and Everyday Politics remains highly relevant. The importance of the everyday, the social and the digital, to the political — and vice versa — has come into increased focus given recent developments. Everyday social media and the political remain heavily intertwined, and understanding them in concert is extremely important, especially when the context has changed so dramatically while accompanied by prominent uses of digital media. Political shifts towards the right, the populist, and the outright fascist are not social media-only concerns, of course, but at the same time the likes of Twitter and Facebook are being used to spread and contest messages (among many other functions).

So, to mark one year on from publication, this is a brief overview of some key themes around social media and everyday politics, with reference to ongoing coverage and research as well as connections to what I cover in the book itself (these are all new citations, not featured in the book).

Social Media and Everyday Politics might or might not get a second edition, although the ideas might get updated in a new form anyway. In the meantime, though, this is background for Social Media and Everyday Politics, re-examined, an upcoming talk at the International Communication Association conference:

Everyday social media and the political

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Whatsapp, Signal, Tinder, Grindr, Telegram, Vine (RIP), YouTube, Uber… everyday platforms and apps are used by many for numerous purposes, including the political. This can be the targeting of dating and hook-up app users in election campaigns, the use of popular platforms for journalistic purposes, campaign messages, and news delivery, or indeed the political implications of platform decision-making and policy. As I examine in Social Media and Everyday Politics, social media users discuss politics and related themes in their everyday activity, engaging with issues of personal interest in addition to, or in place of, institutional Politics. Their accounts also become politicised when implicated in official processes like immigration. Additional research, such as the edited collection The Intersectional Internet, offer further perspectives on race, sex, and class within digital cultures, which are political without necessarily being ‘Political’.

What is also clear is that everyday content has myriad, and unexpected, links to the political. In my current work on hashflags, for example, my interest in the icons accompanying selected hashtags was not explicitly focused on the political, but it became directly connected after revelations that Twitter initially approved, and then revoked, a #CrookedHillary hashflag for the Trump campaign. Emoji, meanwhile, have been the subject of attention about representation and diversity, connecting to wider political issues around race and gender (among others).

Examples of political hashflags (23/4/17)

Research that I have been doing with Kate Miltner about GIFs has also noted various ways that they are used for political commentary, news coverage, and more. Indeed, Giphy was a media partner for both Democrat and Republican conventions in 2016 and live-GIFfed the election debates as part of its wider election coverage. Other popular social media content also took on different significance within the election context. In particular, memes attracted plenty of attention, in part due to their creation and use by the alt-right (and claims of ‘meme magic’), which I discuss further below. Broader (and pre-election) discussion of memes, including their political applications, can be found in the Festival of Memeology series at Culture Digitally, the upcoming The Ambivalent Internet from Whitney Phillips and Ryan Milner, and Milner’s own The World Made Meme. At a time when unflattering memes featuring Vladimir Putin (as a clown) or Recep Tayyip Erdogan (as Gollum) are treated as criminal acts, we can look back at the halcyon days of the Obama/Biden memes as examples of memetic forms which play on understandings/wish fulfilment of political personalities and events…

Practices like unfriending take on political dimensions, too. This is particularly evident in response to (comments about) issues or political personalities, although not specific to political contexts. Nicholas John has argued that “unfriending is becoming part of major events (and also micro-level social dramas too)… I think there is much promise in paying greater attention to unfriending, and especially to the process of unfriending becoming a symbolic act of identity management.”

At the same time, everyday social media platforms also provide spaces for communities to develop in support of marginalised groups. Expressions of identity can be found throughout, with different platforms adopted in diverse ways, often not how the developers’ intended; for example, the use of Vine by young people of color saw new communities and styles develop (and content appropriated and co-opted, without attribution or reward). Stefanie Duguay has also studied how selfies and self-presentation on Vine and Instagram afford LGBTQ visibility. The work of Oliver L. Haimson, Nazanin Andalibi, and colleagues, meanwhile, examines how marginalised and stigmatised individuals, including victims of sexual abuse, users with depression, and transgender people, employ digital spaces as confessional outlets and to seek support (although social media can also heighten or add to challenges experienced by these groups).

Everyday social media are also offering more opportunity for content and news to be shared as it happens. This idea has a long history with digital media (see Chapters Three and Four), but increased infrastructure access and the development of live-streaming capabilities within popular platforms like Twitter and Facebook have meant that live coverage of the everyday and the extraordinary takes on new dimensions. In addition to established practices like live-tweeting, recordings and live video shared on social media can give immediate and extensive visibility to events — for instance, the videos and photos from United flight 232 as a passenger was dragged from the overbooked flight after not volunteering to give up his seat (and the subsequent response in the media, on social media, and by United).

Live-streaming capabilities raise their own concerns, though, particularly with regards to platforms’ involvement in monitoring content. Facebook was criticised after not responding quickly to uploaded video of the murder of Robert Goodwin, and subsequent Facebook Live video from his killer, for example, and live-streamed/social media-covered death (including suicide) is an ongoing concern for platforms. This comes on top of the other forms of content moderation and flagging within comments, posts, videos, and tweets — and the impact on the people doing this moderation (examined in depth by Sarah T. Roberts).

The use of social media by politicians and institutions

One change that has been highlighted by Trump’s election is the way that social media are used by politicians. Arguably Trump is not a ‘politician’ in the same way as those studied in prior research, who generally follow three main tweeting styles: broadcasting, interaction, and Ed Balls. Trump was on Twitter as a businessman and television personality long before he ran for political office, and has his own unique, attention-seeking tweeting style (parodied with more grown-up rewrites here). However, his outspoken and oft-inflammatory rhetoric can be seen, even without exclamations like “Sad!”, in the tweets and posts of other politicians; see, for example, the claims of #fakenews directed at any climate change/renewable energy reports by Australian One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts.

Trump’s extensive tweet history has proven an extremely rich source for highlighting the President’s inconsistencies and hypocrisy, though; from complaining about the amount of time Obama spent playing golf or away from Washington DC, to his views on bombing Syria, there is often a previous (and undeleted) tweet from Trump that directly counteracts his latest action or speech. Tweet archives for the likes of Press Secretary Sean Spicer, too, have offered alternative views on the new administration’s actions, as well as offering more opportunities for gaffes. On a different but connected note, Kate Imbach’s analysis of Melania Trump’s Instagram archive provides a fascinating interpretation of a ‘fairytale prisoner’ life presented through the First Lady’s shared photos.

The advent of the Trump administration has inspired a wave of digital media accounts and projects responding to, documenting, and correcting what Trump does. This is similar in a sense to what happened to the French political blogosphere after Nicolas Sarkozy became President in 2007, with numerous anti-Sarkozy watchdog blogs established in opposition. Ongoing work is noting all the incorrect claims the Trump administration has made, documenting all that has happened in the first weeks of the presidency, and indeed asking “what the fuck just happened today?”.

In Chapter Two of the book, I talk about Twitter parody accounts and their connections to news and politics. The Trump election was a catalyst for more parody and alternative accounts, but also ‘rogue’ accounts which ostensibly claim to represent anonymous voices from the administration or government bodies. These drew attention around Trump’s inauguration: when the Badlands National Park account tweeted about the dangers of climate change and the official National Parks Service account posted comparisons of Trump’s crowd size with the first Obama inauguration, tweet deletions and account suspensions led to rogue accounts acting as (or on behalf of) representatives of the parks and the service. There are also rogue accounts presented as coming from Trump staffers within the West Wing, among others. However, the veracity of these accounts is unconfirmed, and the purpose of their tweets could be wish fulfilment or misinformation as much as any reporting of disorganisation and conflict within the administration. (Conversely, identifying pseudonymous political accounts is supported by the automated recommendation algorithms of social media platforms).

Political news and analysis, fake and factual

The idea of the National Parks Service’s social media accounts being new sources of political news and commentary fits in with hopes directed toward social media (and, previously, Web 2.0 and social networking sites) of affording anyone the opportunity to share their opinions, to report news, and to break stories. While this ideal remains overly simplistic, there have been alternative publications, voices, and sources getting recognition for their analysis and commentary (including snark and pointedly political references), using social media if not unique to it. These include the political reporting in Teen Vogue and the topical — but not subtweeting — tweets of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (account here). There have also been further increases in podcasting, including politics-oriented shows, from established news/social news media and academics and thinktanks, to name a few. Social media have also allowed for voices like seven-year-old Syrian refugee Bana al-Abed, whose tweets from Aleppo received global attention, following examples of global visibility and amplification through groups like Global Voices or events like the Arab Spring uprisings.

Other sources have dedicated themselves to fact-checking and correcting erronenous claims, at a time when terms like ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’ (and, indeed, ‘fake news’) are de rigeur. I noted aspects of fact-checking and fakery in Chapters Two and Four, but the visibility, scope, and implications of fake news have increased dramatically since then. Live fact-checking was carried out by NPR (and others) during the US presidential election debates, for example, while the now-extensive coverage of the fake news problem has included typologies of these sites and the economy and people behind them. Following the election result and the increased interest in fake news, Jonathan Albright pubished a series of analyses about fake news, bots, and the left/right news ecosystem. In March 2017, Pew released a report and expert opinions about ‘The Future of Free Speech, Trolls, Anonymity and Fake News Online’. Meanwhile, ‘The Field Guide to Fake News’ is a scholarly and practical resource highlighting how to spot and address fake news.

Although the connections to the 2016 election have made these issues particularly prominent, they are apparent beyond the US. The current French Presidential election has seen ‘junk news’ about leading candidates being widely shared on Twitter and Facebook purging thousands of fake accounts, in the shadow of fears of Russian interference in the election. In the wake of the US election, though, Gilad Lotan noted how “fake news is not the only problem”; following on from this, Data & Society released a series of posts in February 2017 highlighting “issues that we think are important for trying to make sense of the relationship between technology and current political dynamics in the US”. These include manipulation (danah boyd), propaganda (Caroline Jack), and questions of online free speech (Alice Marwick).

The intersections between fakes and news extend to fake followers and social media users, in concert with algorithms affecting news visibility and metrics. Attention has been directed towards bots, including automated accounts acting as followers, supporters, or opponents of particular causes or parties (or determining whether or not an account is a bot). Phil Howard and colleagues have provided ongoing research into political bots, while Jonathan Albright also posted an examination of bots in the 2016 US Presidential election. In Mexico, pro-government Twitter bots have spammed activist hashtags (reducing the visibility of vital information) and serve to undermine social media as information source and activist tool; for journalists and activists, these campaigns from bots and trolls are accompanied by dangers and threats.

Bots are not specific to Twitter, nor are they all spam or attack bots; there are Wikipedia bots, Skype bots, and media organisation-developed bots on Facebook Messenger as an alternative way for providing information, for example. Bots can also provide information about archives and updates, automatically post links and analyses, or making political statements in other ways: the TrumpOrNotBot determines the probability of Trump being the author of a specific tweet; the BurnedYourTweet bot offers the physical automation of burning Trump’s tweets. The politics of bots, though, is also clouded. Microsoft’s Tay Twitter chatbot, introduced in April 2016, had to be suspended after a day because it was taught to repeat white supremacist speech (among other offenses).

Filter bubbles, echo chambers, and the alt-right

Tay was far from alone in posting racist and fascist tweets in 2016, though. Indeed, the visibility of the alt-right and their use of digital media during (and after) the US presidential election has been the subject of much analysis. Whitney Phillips has written and contributed to several pieces since the 2016 US Presidential election about trolling and the alt-right, including this article with Jessica Beyer and Gabriella Coleman countering the notion of the alt-right’s ‘meme magic’. She has also, with Ryan Milner, examined memes in the election (including the alt-right context). Milner, together with Molly Sauter and Amy Johnson, contributed thoughts about the ethics of sharing memes that originated with the alt-right, while the author of that piece, Jason Koebler, has also written about the chatrooms where these memes are created. As the results came in on 8 November, too, Crystal Abidin went through the Trump memes shared on 9gag over the previous weeks to document their lineage from “subversive frivolity to normativity”.

Again, though, this isn’t just the US. The 2017 French Presidential election has had prominent coverage of the extreme right Front National and its candidate Marine Le Pen, digitally aided and abetted by alt-right Trump supporters and by bot armies tweeting en masse, promoting FN hashtags and attacking other candidates. France’s ideological landscape is more fractured than, say, the US or Australia, with representation from the far-left, far-right, centre and various points in-between leading to particularly partisan (and polarised) online presences. This polarization was partially evident, in a different form, in my PhD study of French political blogs, when extreme-right bloggers were found in a network mostly distinct from the wider French political blogosphere (also featured in Chapter Six of the book) but connected to nationalistic groups in other countries. The far-right ‘fachosphère’ on social media and across various right-wing websites has been part of the pro-Le Pen push during the election campaign.

While these ideas are not new, the focus on filter bubbles and echo chambers, and the apparent lack of exposure to opposition views, has increased in the last year (see also the US media industry’s own bubbles). To combat the effects of filter bubbles and the like, Jason Wilson launched the ‘Burst Your Bubble’ series at The Guardian, offering weekly links and summaries of articles from sources such as Infowars and Breitbart. In February 2017, BuzzFeed announced the ‘Outside Your Bubble’ experiment to display popular posts from different, potentially opposition, sources— although, as the feature lacked the context or explanation of Wilson’s annotations, BuzzFeed attracted criticism for its approach. Other methods developed here include browser plug-ins and extensions which directly address social media filter bubbles.

Platforms and algorithms

The role of social media platforms in all of this is disputed, too, including how Facebook or Twitter contribute to the formation or maintenance of personal filter bubbles. Mark Zuckerberg’s own description of Facebook has changed from a ‘technology platform’ to something that is neither traditional tech company nor traditional media company. The distinction is important for seeing the responsibility the platform assumes for the content shared on it, its users, and political stances taken.

Facebook and Google both introduced approaches to combatting fake news in 2017, from annotating links to questionable sources to tailored messages about how users can better inform themselves. This follows the fall-out on Facebook in 2016 about the stories promoted in its ‘trending now’ feed: having replaced human editors with automated processes, fake news stories started appearing in this section. Yet, as danah boyd notes, this isn’t not the only problem — or the solution — with fake news and platforms.

Screenshot from Facebook app re: fake news

The decisions made by platforms have deliberate and inadvertant political implications. In late 2015, Facebook was criticised when it activated its Safety Check feature following the terrorist attacks in Paris, but did not do the same following attacks in Beirut a day earlier (or, as Caitlin Dewey notes in The Washington Post, after then-recent attacks in Turkey, Nigeria, or Kenya). The Paris attacks were the first case of a non-disaster activation of Safety Check, but the implications here were that responses to non-Western incidents (and users) were less necessary (or that these incidents were not uncommon). Following this criticism, Facebook announced it would improve its Safety Check policy; as of late 2016, the feature is now activated automatically, based on user activity.

Questions of representation, intentionality, and meaning-making abound with what platforms enable or deny for users, and how these are framed (from Facebook’s ‘like’ but no ‘dislike’ button, to Twitter’s move from the favourite star to a heart icon). The affordances and policies of platforms, and the politics apparent within these, have been studied in detail by scholars including José van Dijck, Carolin Gerlitz, Anne Helmond, and Taina Bucher (including a co-authored chapter by Bucher and Helmond in the forthcoming Sage Handbook of Social Media). These intersect with wider issues in different ways; Ariadna Matamoros Fernández’s article on platformed racism, for example, examines how platforms like Facebook and Twitter are involved in the circulation and visibility of racist content. The role of algorithms, and questions around their design, transparency, and accountability, has also been the subject of much recent research, such as Data & Society’s ongoing ‘algorithms and publics’ project, and Tarleton Gillespie’s work on platform politics and algorithms. Safiya Noble’s upcoming book Algorithms of Oppression, meanwhile, examines the biases and inequality of search algorithms, particularly against women of color.

Platform biases are accompanied by problematic behaviours from social media users, too, some of which I discuss in Chapter One. These behaviours have evolved since I wrote the book, though, and further research offers new critiques and examinations: this includes, among others, Adrienne Massanari’s research on reddit and toxic technocultures; Sarah Banet-Weiser and Kate Miltner’s analysis of networked misogyny, and Emma A. Jane’s research on online misogyny. There are also ongoing discussions around hate, harmful speech, and related practices; cross-platform examples of social media harassment and abuse, as well as strategies against these; practices like cam-hacking/camfecting, and voyeuristic behaviours like creepshots; and the leaking, hacking, and posting others’ personal content to shame, defame, and potentially ruin them. However, there is also resistance against platform attempts to curb these behaviours by users promoting problematic or offensive content and attitudes, including arguing a ‘free speech’ defense; Sky Croeser has written on the need (and how) to think beyond arguments of free speech in responding to online harassment.

Included in these studies are critiques of the platforms’ own approaches to dealing with problematic behaviour. The likes of Twitter and Facebook have not necessarily provided clear policies or attitudes towards responding to abuse, harassment, offensive content, and problem users, although these are developing. Twitter has gradually improved mechanisms for reporting and blocking harassment, and has banned users for violations and incitement (although not a particularly prominent public example of this). Facebook released a revenge porn policy in 2017, following policies from Microsoft, reddit, and Twitter in 2015. Policing content is still inconsistent and at times problematic, though, including the response to complaints about platform censorship.

Indeed, there remains a prevailing view that platforms are not doing enough, or are concentrating efforts in the wrong way. This is particularly the case for Twitter, where the platform’s lack of action on dealing with racism, abuse, and more has contributed to the rise of Mastodon as a competitor to Twitter “without Nazis”. Even Twitter’s actual actions have been questioned; having realised that the default ‘egg’ profile icon for new users was being associated with abusive and fake accounts, Twitter decided the best course of action was to change the icon to make it more welcoming for new users, rather than responding to the actual problems existing on its platform.

Visual social media, visible social media

For those who do change the profile picture from the default egg or silhouette (or other new profile options on different platforms), the icon becomes a further way of engaging with the political. In the book I noted the rainbow overlays on Facebook profile pictures in June 2015, to support Pride Week and, coincidentally, the US Supreme Court decision in favour of marriage equality. Such overlays have also appeared in response to tragedy, such as a French tricolore as a temporary addition to Facebook profile pictures after terrorist acts in Paris in late 2015. Support for causes, parties, and issues is also displayed through iconography within profile pictures, such as showing support for Planned Parenthood, as examples of ‘symbolic action’.

Visual social media content takes different forms, and which have their own political applications and implications. Some of the politics of GIFs and emoji are noted above, while discussion of politics and selfies is present both at the very start of Social Media and Everyday Politics and the ongoing work of researchers in the Selfies Research Network — see, in particular, the new collection Selfie Citizenship (ed. Adi Kuntsman). One of the points I made about visual social media and the 2016 Australian election campaign is that there is a new wealth of possible material and ways of sharing it, with added immediacy. Any media event is rife for GIFs and clips, for screenshots and hot takes and quotes, with every gesture and moment able to be spread, decontextualised, recontextualised, and remixed. The introduction from my and Tama Leaver’s article on visual social media outlines further intersections between the visual and the political, including after the attacks in Paris and Bruxelles. These are displayed further in Crystal Abidin’s documentation of the visual responses on Instagram to tragedy and terror, from Paris to Bruxelles to San Bernardino to Jakarta; Crystal has also built on these analyses in her discussion of grief ‘hype-jacking’ (looking at #thoughtsandprayers and responses and critiques of social media grieving).

Parts of Crystal’s analyses examine emergent tropes and iconic images within these responses to crises and tragedy. Social media have also helped other visual content to spread and become iconic in the process; the photograph of the drowned body of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, for example, became a symbol of the (ongoing) refugee crisis. The research carried out at the Visual Social Media Lab (hosted at the University of Sheffield) has further examined the visual cultures of social media, including the political in several projects.

Everyday social media can also be used to make issues visible in other ways. Hashtag campaigning is a well-established process for promoting issues and movements, and for framing concerns around a particular (sometimes affective) phrase. Recent examples from Australia include #LetThemStay (protesting against sending refugees to offshore detention centres), #NotMyDebt (the aid agency Centrelink’s incorrect billing of thousands of Australians), and #CensusFail (for privacy concerns about the 2016 census, and for the problems that plagued the process). These hashtags accompany other processes, such as physical protest and demonstration and coordinated campaigns to requesting information and inquiries. By themselves, hashtag campaigns just on Twitter are not the most likely driver of success. What they help to do, though, is add visibility and distill messages with emotional or personal impact.

Solidarity with Boaty McBoatFace

These practices also include the rituals and irreverence that I outlined in Chapter Two of the book, on hashtaggery and portmanteaugraphy especially. For example, the #PutOutYour[x]/ #PutYour[x]Out format as a means of solidarity and empathy (whether sincere or ironic) has become an established template in Australia. Related examples range from the initial #PutOutYourBats in tribute to the late cricketer Phillip Hughes, to the display of schadenfreude that was #PutOutYourOnions when Tony Abbott was deposed as Prime Minister (never forget), to the recent #PutYourBloopersOut, as gaffes were shared in solidarity with ABC newsreader Natasha Exelby after a video of her realising a few seconds late that she was live on air went viral (and after initial reports suggested the ABC had removed her from her position). This evolution of the format also shows how such activity may be non-political but gets linked to current news and issues (see also: the lasting influence of BoatyMcBoatFace). These may later become non-political again, as established and everyday social media practices get adopted for engaging with politics.

Resistance, protest, sharing

The politicisation of the everyday has become pronounced with the advent of the Trump administration, and in particular the pushback against the new President. #Resistance is taking place on the streets and on social media, with demonstrations like the Women’s March the day after the inauguration and the March for Science streamed and recorded across platforms. The live-streaming of protests and marches that Sky Croeser and I noted in our Occupy Oakland research (see also Chapter Five), has become further facilitated by the likes of Snapchat, Facebook Live, and Periscope as live-streaming tools, whether recording demonstrations or the mundane, have become more commonplace (and heavily promoted by platforms).

Digital media are used for resistance and dissent, to mobilise, and to support, and there has been extensive research into various social movements and counter-publics’ use of these technologies. The Black Lives Matter report from Deen Freelon, Charlton D. McIlwain, and Meredith D. Clark, offers a substantial investigation of the work of the movement, including its digital media strategies as well as interviews with activists; as I noted in Chapter Five, the social media activity of a movement is not the entire movement itself, and it remains critical to not just look at a hashtag or a Facebook group to understand contemporary protests. Zeynep Tufekci’s new book Twitter and Tear Gas promises to explore more of these ideas, and the benefits and challenges of digital media for activism, in great detail.

The everyday importance of the online, as well as digitally mediated activism, has meant that platforms and infrastructure are also targets for regimes and governments to curb opposition. In January 2017, internet access in Cameroon was shutdown for 20% of the nation in apparent response to protests against perceived discrimination towards Anglophones — with access only restored 90 days later. Internet and social media blackouts and blocks are tactics used by regimes to censor opposition. The Turkey Blocks project is dedicated to tracking such blocking and throttling undertakings by the Turkish authorities, where political unrest is often accompanied by blackouts.

Of course, there are many different groups using digital technologies to voice their opposition, resistance, or solidarity, as I have noted throughout this piece. It is not just footage of Nazis being punched that is spread (and remixed) across social media; the recipients of the punches are similarly using these spaces to promote their views and causes, to manipulate trending algorithms, to give visibility to misinformation. Hashtag activism and trends, media appropriation, and meme creation, to name a few, are among the digital tools being used for propaganda and inciting or nomalising violence, while social media are also used for recruitment and promotion of terrorist causes. These are not social media-only issues or problems; the rise in popularity of nationalism and extremist views has not come from Twitter alone nor is it only taking place in Facebook groups or subreddits. How digital media are implicated, though — from user practices to platform policies — is a critical question that will be the subject of much ongoing and necessary research.

Related research may go in further directions, too; everyday social media and the political intersect in other ways beyond the public social. Studies may look at the private and the encrypted, for example, or questions of digital rights and the connections to the everyday apps and platforms we use. What is also evident is how political (and politicised) practices develop among social media users and communities, beyond the aims or intended functions of the platform developers. Kath Albury and Paul Byron note the ‘off-label’ uses of hook-up apps, where Grindr and Tinder are used to non-sexual ends; the political, too, represents a long-term, initially ‘off-label’ aspect of everyday social media. The likes of Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat now have ongoing partnerships and strategies with political bodies and media organisations, reflecting the established intersection of news and politics with digital media. However, these follow emergent practices and unexpected applications of platforms and their affordances. ‘Off-label’ social media activity will continue to lead to new ways of discussing, supporting, and resisting the political. The politics of an individual platform may be tangential, brought about or implied by particular affordances, or by rival apps being more morally questionable. At a time when the everyday is increasingly politicised, though, the everyday politics of social media are heavily entwined in reflecting, representing, and reacting to what’s happening.

* * *

Social Media and Everyday Politics is available now via Polity, on Amazon, Book Depository, and in other bookstores and libraries worldwide.

My talk ‘Social media and everyday politics, re-examined: The impact of fake news, the alt-right, and the clickbait president’ will take place at the International Communication Association pre-conference event ‘Populism, Post-Truth Politics and Participatory Culture: Interventions in the Intersection of Popular and Political Communication’ (San Diego, 24–25 May 2017).

For more information or to discuss related events and writing, get in touch with me via email (see timhighfield.net).

Thanks to Kate Miltner for comments on drafts of this piece.

Adaptation of ‘This is fine’ in feature image based on ‘On Fire’, from Gunshow by KC Green.

This post was cross-posted on Medium and Culture Digitally

the 2016 that was


2016 was a weird old year, to put it mildly – and that’s without considering Brexit, Trump, the ongoing rise of extremism, unrest and turmoil and crises, political inactivity on major issues, and all the celebrity deaths (not just Bowie)… Personally, 2016 didn’t feel like the most productive year, and there was a lot going on behind the scenes that contributed to that — but, looking at the round-up for the year, it doesn’t seem that bad overall. Obviously the book finally coming out was a major achievement for 2016, but there was also a lot of progress with the visual social media research I’ve been doing, especially on GIFs:


Published in 2016



Social Media and Everyday Politics



Tim Highfield and Axel Bruns: ‘Compulsory Voting, Encouraged Tweeting? Australian Elections and Social Media’; Axel Bruns and Tim Highfield: ‘Is Habermas on Twitter? Social Media and the Public Sphere’ – both in The Routledge Companion to Social Media and Politics

Axel Bruns and Tim Highfield: ‘May the best Tweeter win: The Twitter strategies of key campaign accounts in the 2012 US election’ – in Die US-Präsidentschaftswahl 2012: Analysen der Politik- und Kommunikationswissenschaft



Tim Highfield and Tama Leaver: Instagrammatics and digital methods: studying visual social media, from selfies and GIFs to memes and emoji (Communication Research and Practice)

Tama Leaver and Tim Highfield: Visualising the ends of identity: pre-birth and post-death on Instagram (Information, Communication & Society)

+ 2015 publication as online-first but now out with 2016 page numbers: ‘News via Voldemort: Parody accounts in topical discussions on Twitter’ (New Media & Society)


Other writing

‘Covering the election beyond our memes: what role for visual politics and social media?’ (The Conversation)

‘Waiving (hash)flags: Some thoughts on Twitter hashtag emoji’ (Medium)



Talks + presentations

‘On (the) loop: The animated GIF and cultural logics of repetition’ (Theorizing the Web, New York City, April 2016) [view this talk on YouTube]
‘Social Media and Everyday Politics’ (Oxford Internet Institute Summer Doctoral Programme, Oxford, July 2016)
Tim Highfield and Kate M. Miltner, ‘Interrogating the reaction GIF: Making meaning by repurposing repetition’ (Social Media and Society, London, July 2016)
‘The politics of info-GIF-ics: Animated maps and graphs on everyday social media’ (Culture and Politics of Data Visualisation, Sheffield, October 2016)
Tim Highfield and Peta Mitchell, ‘Ambient geodata and algorithmic surveillance’ (Automating the Everyday symposium, Brisbane, December 2016)
Tim Highfield and Kate M. Miltner, ‘The Trumping of the political GIF: Visual social media for political commentary in the 2016 US election’ (Crossroads, Sydney, December 2016)
‘Smashed mouths: Internet cultures and the embrace and subversion of nostalgia’ (Crossroads, Sydney, December 2016)


The conceptual challenges of perpetual motion: Challenges of studying looping visual social media‘ – poster presentation (ICA Visual Communication pre-conference, Fukuoka, June 2016)


Tim Highfield, Kate M. Miltner, Amy Johnson, and R. Stuart Geiger, ‘Playing with the rules’ fishbowl (AoIR2016, Berlin, October 2016)




July 2016: ABC Radio National – Drive with Patricia Karvelas, ‘Social Campaign: poll selfies, Greens on Grindr and Twitter investigates Kelly O’Dwyer’ (live interview)
June 2016: Washington Post, ‘The mesmerizing lost art of the 10-hour YouTube loop, 2011’s weirdest video trend’ by Abby Ohlheiser (interview)
May 2016: ABC Gold Coast – Breakfast, ‘How do political memes affect the polls?’ (live interview)




Tim Highfield and Tama Leaver: Instagrammatics for 2016 CCI Digital Methods Summer School
Bots for QUT DMRC workshop series



1 prize-winning GIF


Get elected!
‘Don’t get mad, get elected’ for GIF IT UP! 2016



around the world

37 flights (213298 km, or, >5x around the world; 11 days 19:13 flight time) + long-distance trains
six countries (Australia, USA, Germany, UK, France, Japan)

24 times Gudetama got academic existentialism


Gudetama is the lazy egg from Sanrio (creators of many many characters, including Hello Kitty). Their lack of enthusiasm for getting up or doing anything, their desire to just keep resting, speaks to anyone who just does not do mornings — see, among their various videos, this one as a starting point — but Gudetama’s thoughts and feelings can also be applied to various academic concerns, in GIF form:

Needing to write All The Things but not feeling it










Overwhelming confusion (even with advice)








Being a hermit because everything is due







The anxiety of public events








Social media




Deadlines and dread







Being unique and original





What comes next











presentation: Oh! You Pretty GIFs (Melbourne, July 2015)


In mid-July, in my final stop in the mid-year conference tour, I had the honour of presenting at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne at a symposium marking the opening of the David Bowie is exhibition in Australia at the same venue. Needless to say, it was an amazing experience, and huge thanks go to the organizers for their hard work in putting this together; I fell sick after the first day, unfortunately, and missed out on a whole bunch of fascinating work if the first day was anything to go by! Plus it’s not many conferences where the day starts with musical performances (including a ukulele trio dubbed the ‘Thin White Ukes’), features keynotes from a scholar living as Bowie, the David Bowie is V&A curator, and one of Australia’s pre-eminent musicians and music writers, *and* offers workshops and such that include make-up and photoshoots:


I presented a paper about David Bowie GIFs, fandom, and related themes; unlike many of my previous presentations, my slides were mostly images, projected onto a ridiculously huge cinema screen – so putting up the slides without comment seems a little confusing; however, also unusually, I wrote out a script for my presentation so that I had something to work from without the slides to give written prompts. So, if you are interested, you can find the full selection of GIFs and accompanying ‘script’ (which I talked around and occasionally went on short tangents from, but as a guide to what I was probably planning to say) after the cut: