Queer Choreographies of Twitter Memes as Objects of Digital Embodiment Increasing Access to Means of Digital Cultural Creation

W.G. Ellis
W.G. Ellis is currently a graduate student in the Department of Women’s Studies at San Diego State University. They pursue interdisciplinary research, touching on myriad fields including queer theory, trannational studies, Arab American studies, cultural studies, performance studies, science and technology studies, critical food studies, and digial humanities. At the time of this publication, their work has been accepted for presentation at Northwestern University’s Queertopia conference (2019), the American Studies Association conference (2021), as well as the Arab American Studies Association conference (2021). They look forward to continuing their academic career for many years to come.

Introduction

The spread of social media offers insight into how understandings and formations of bodies are created intra-communally in global and pluralistic ways. This gives us an opportunity to see how social bodies are rendered through syntheses of digital narrative that are not only mimetic to a more seemingly natural social body, but indelibly a part of holistically comprised social bodies.

Gay memes seek to establish a norm through which the gayness of a subject can be made intelligible to others in the know. They rely on simple yet seemingly arbitrary qualifiers—drinking iced coffee, walking fast, and enjoying certain pieces of media or actors at formational ages—to determine what a gay body on Twitter should look like. That is, they seek to establish a bodily aesthetic normativity for gay Twitter users, giving form to digital bodies.

Bodily aesthetic normativity references the ways in which bodies are made intelligible as belonging to certain constructed groups by making external and socioculturally coded perceptions of a subject’s bodily aesthetics seem natural, fixed, and self-evident. The logics of this understanding of bodily aesthetics open subjects up to myriad forms of regulation and punishment, imposing constraints on how individuals fit in to different sociocultural categories. In order to understand how this happens within this subset of Twitter users, it is imperative to understand some basics of how Twitter functions, what memes are, what digital bodies are, what we mean by choreographies, and just what it means to appear gay. 

Following this analysis, I will highlight three areas that require specific attention by policy creators that allow for the establishment of more equitable grounds through which disempowered voices would have an increased ability to form notions of what it is to be queer. 

The Importance of Locked Accounts

Twitter allows users to operate with private or locked accounts. To view the tweets of a person with a private account, you must request to follow them, and they must in turn approve that request. This has dual implications. It allows Twitter users to opt out, to a certain degree, from other users folding their cultural productions and words into a set of violent discourses. Implicit in this infrastructure is an understanding that there exists on the platform a sizable group of actors who would wish to do harm unto those people seeking refuge in locked accounts. 

Twitter has stated repeatedly they will not ban Nazis (or other white supremacists) in the United States from the platform until those actors issue tweets that are in violation of Twitter’s rules of conduct and those tweets have been reported by other users. This system largely relies on a reporting algorithm that has repeatedly led to the continued existence of white supremacists on the platform and has additionally led to the suspension of accounts of users responding to—and defending themselves against—these white supremacists.

In this sense, Twitter algorithms operate as administrative systems, which Dean Spade notes are “sites of production and implementation of racism, xenophobia, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, and ableism under the guise of neutrality.”[i] This means that those who have been coded by sociopolitical systems as being the subjects most vulnerable to violence are the users who most need to rely on the security of the locked account. Assuredly, these are not the only people who lock their accounts, but by commonly voiced and emic statements of trans and of color communities on Twitter—as well as in accordance with scholarship on digital participatory cultures—they are the people who are most often coerced into doing so.[ii] Liberal policies that do not grapple with differentials in capital accumulation and proximity to power are unable to equitably address issues of harassment and silencing. According to Christian Fuchs, Twitter as a platform is defined in part by its reality of “asymmetric visibility” wherein “democratic potentials are limited by the reality of stratified attention and the visibility characteristic for a capitalist culture.”[iii]

Only through simultaneously addressing the context that informs the information available to Twitter algorithms, as well as the biases in the algorithms themselves, can movements be made for more equitable access to participation in a socio-cultural democratic method of group identity production.

Memes, Choreographies, and Digital Bodies

While the word meme is in common circulation in casual conversation, there is disagreement as to the actual definition of a meme as well as to the significances memes carry with them. The term has been around since the 1970s; however, with the advent of the Internet, the ability to create, share, and re-form memes boomed and gained new significance.[iv] In Memes in Digital Culture, Limor Shifman notes that “internet memes can be treated as (post)modern folklore, in which shared norms and values are constructed through cultural artifacts.” According to Shifman, a key component of an Internet meme is its intertextuality––that is, the ability to combine meme with meme to create something new but still intelligible as a shared cultural object. 

Shifman’s understanding of internet memes is particularly useful, and I will be looking at how Twitter users’ interactions with memes help establish norms and narratives of how gayness and/or queerness are digitally embodied and made recognizable on the platform as choreographies.

A choreography is a sequence of steps and movements that a body performs to be read by outside observers. In the context of memes on Twitter, I am breaking from how the term choreography is generally used in dance and movement studies. In that discipline, there is often a particular emphasis on the corporeal, physical body. I instead choose to focus on the movement of a digital body, a body that is constructed and understood in a technocultural context.

In her 2013 work, “‘Single Ladies’ is Gay,” Harmony Bench emphasizes an important aspect of choreographies in the realm of participatory social media, as operating as a variant of Sara Ahmed’s notion of Objects of Emotion.[v], [vi] Through an examination of the cultural meme of Beyonce’s dance choreography from the “Single Ladies” music video and its numerous iterations (from YouTube performances to the Saturday Night Live sketch engaging with the choreography), Bench notes that “as the number of imitations and reproductions of a given choreography increase thanks to social media’s participatory culture, each performance provides new framing and delimitations…[and] expand a choreography’s possibilities at every restaging.”

Bench focuses on these viral choreographies as “objects of embodiment” as opposed to objects of emotion due to the way in which the corporeo-physical is involved in the creation of the videos, and how that dance choreography of “Single Ladies,” in particular, engaged with what is recognized as “queer kinesthetics.” 

I expand this notion by focusing on the movement of digital bodies, thus imagining memes as “Objects of Digital Embodiment.” This expands the notion of queer kinesthetics to be more inclusive of those who, for various reasons, have been left out of the empowered notion of corporeal queer movement, and decenters a largely Western notion of the body/mind divide. Memes are crucial components to gay and queer digital embodiment in that they are objects that provide positionality for digital bodies. Simply being a queer person is not enough to be read as such on Twitter. You must interact with shared bits of culture so that others may be able to read you as not-straight.[vii]

Through retweeting, replying, quote tweeting, or providing remixes of memes, the digital bodies of Twitter users are given shape in their movement. Just as Ahmed’s Objects of Emotion and Bench’s Objects of Embodiment, memes as Objects of Digital Embodiment are sticky. Through interacting with memes, digital bodies leave their imprint upon the meme itself. The meme collects meaning with every interaction and is increasingly delimited in its interpretation. The meme also leaves an imprint upon the body interacting with it. The stickiness of a meme as an Object of Digital Embodiment is determined by its relative cultural impact and, in turn, the degree of its legibility as a coding device.

It is through the repeated and continued enactments of these choreographies that the digital body is given shape. By looking at how a digital body’s interaction with memes has shifted the existing meaning of the meme and, thus, the other bodies that have and will interact with that meme, we are given insight into the body that shifted the space. Also, through the increasing number of imprints from interactions with memes as Objects of Digital Embodiment, a more specific shape of the body is hewn from the imprints. For instance, someone retweeting a video from Twitter user @mfbenji (who, at the time of this writing, is identified as a cisgender gay white man) codes themselves through association with that single interaction. If that user then retweets a meme made by @C_GraceT (who, at the time of this writing, is identified as a Queer Black woman), this adds to their perceived subject coding by association. Through a combination of all tweets, retweets, and quote tweets, a Twitter user’s digital body picks up bits of contextual coding imparted by the meme—sticking to the user’s digital body.

Whose choreographies stick?

To parse the question of who has the ability to create the stickiest meme choreographies, we need to look at the systems that govern the creation and proliferation of memes. Ganeale Langlois dives into the paradox of the democratic claims of participatory media, stating:

The democratic claim of the participatory media environment is partly true: anybody can express themselves and encounter minimal censorship. However, the locus of power and focus of the governance process is not on content per se, but on the conditions within which meaning can emerge.[viii]

Langlois points to participatory media platforms, such as Twitter, as assemblages, wherein the dynamic interplay of software, hardware, linguistic practices, and cultural practices “enable the production, distribution, and experience of meaning via cultural signs. Meaning here should be understood broadly as [. . .] making the world comprehensible and livable by defining its limits and possibilities.”[ix] This in turn codifies the dynamics of who gets to create meanings and thus stabilize the cultural roles of users and users’ perceptions of themselves and their relative cultural value.[x]

Safiya Umoja Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression provides a framework for understanding how Twitter algorithms act as a form of governance in the creation of these stabilized cultural roles of users. Noble notes that algorithms are created by software designers who are entrenched in the political, social, and cultural modes of oppression that exist in wider society and thus work those forces into the creation of specific search algorithms. This impacts the “politics of recognition” of online discourse and therefore impacts the creation of meaning on these platforms.[xi]

As Noble writes, “algorithmic oppression is not just a glitch in the system but, rather, is fundamental to the operating system of the web.”[xii] Though there has yet to be a peer-reviewed, published analysis of what memes have the most increased algorithmic visibility on Twitter, it is perfectly reasonable to assert—based on anecdotal emic observations of Twitter users—that the stickiest memes tend to be ones favored by these algorithms of oppression.[xiii] Since these formations happen on a commodified platform, memes promoted by the algorithms are more likely to utilize individualistic, neoliberal conceptions of identity politics.[xiv] However, users are still impacted by outside cultural forces specific to their lived experiences, and the participatory nature of this social media means that algorithms aren’t the end-all-be-all of how meaning is created and articulated. Through a combination of algorithmic influences; co-existing social, political, and economic systems of oppression; individual and group identity play; and shifting discursive practices, the uses of memes by Twitter users produce multivalent and contradictory notions of queerness which help to shape what a queer digital body can or should look like. 

I identify two polarities of gay and queer Twitter meme choreographies, with the acknowledged caveat that the boundaries between these sets are murky at best. These categories are often intermixed with each other in both/and manners, crafting multitudes of digital gay and queer bodies, multivalent in their intelligibility under the dominant precepts of bodily aesthetic normativity. 

The polarities may be summed up as, on the one hand, a neoliberal gay polarity, and on the other a polarity defined by a queer oppositional consciousness.[xv] In essence, these choreographies are attempts to produce recognizable meaning “in the social space” within the context of what we can consider an imagined community on Twitter through different conceptions and utterances.[xvi]

A neoliberal performance of the gay body is rooted in individual and juridical conceptions of gayness, formulated to be “folded into” dominant capitalist, nationalist, and racist techniques of subject formation.[xvii] Queer performances, on the other hand, seek to embrace a liberatory ethos, wherein systems of oppression inherent to the neoliberal framework are rejected. This queer ethos understands the importance of pluralistic, anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and anti-ableist discourse and praxis in creating a new reality that is not founded on the corrosive qualities of heteronormativity. This requires engaging with queer politics not as a set of politics rooted in a single identity (non-heterosexual) to organize and mobilize around, but more in line with queer politics as outlined in Cathy Cohen’s “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens.” This method of understanding queer politics is rooted in an analysis of “the marginalized relation to power [. . .] that frames the possibility for transformative coalition work” that requires contending with, among other factors, “the relative power and privilege that one receives from being a man and/or being white and/or being middle class and/or being heterosexual.”[xviii] By focusing this analysis on the obfuscated cultural contributions of individuals coercively pushed behind locked accounts and the imbricated relative lack of stickiness of the memes of other disempowered users, we are given insight into what measures must be taken for a queer politics that does not only serve to aid wealthy, cis, white, gay men. 

Through a comparative analysis of the stickiness of these choreographies as they interact with memes as Objects of Digital Embodiment, we may identify the maintenance and violations of affective segregation on Twitter (and, in turn, social structuring as a whole).[xix] Through tracking the salience of affective divides in gay/queer meme choreographies, it is possible to gain insight into the relative utility of certain policy implementations in the wake of their institution. 

Recommendations for Policy Creators

Given the analysis presented throughout this article, it is clear that policy changes are necessary to support a more free production and enhanced stickiness of counter-identificatory and queer meme choreographies. These policies must have a tripartite emphasis. 

Firstly, these policies must push for Universal Basic Services (UBS), including but not limited to access to high-speed Internet. In The Case for Universal Basic Services, Anna Coote and Andrew Percy lay out a concise definition of UBS, which I am engaging in this article:

1. Services: collectively generated activities that serve the public interest.

2. Basic: services that are essential and sufficient (rather than minimal) to enable people to meet their needs.

3. Universal: everyone is entitled to services that are sufficient to meet their needs, regardless of ability to pay.[xx]

Specifically addressing concerns about high-speed Internet access under a robust UBS program requires understanding the current levels of access to high-speed Internet in the United States. According to the 2018 Broadband Deployment Report from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), over 24 million Americans lack access to broadband Internet, and 14 million people entirely lack Internet access, with rural populations and populations of Tribal Lands experiencing much lower rates of access overall.[xxi], [xxii] These numbers relate to the FCC’s criteria for the minimum upload rate of 3 Mbps to qualify as high-speed Internet, which is much lower than what other organizations argue for. For instance, the Open Technology Institute (OTI) recommends a symmetrical upload/output rate of 20 Mbps.[xxiii] While the FCC as a whole is comfortable with their performance, one might look to commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel’s dissenting statement, which includes the previously cited lack of broadband access. Rosenworcel goes on to say, “[t]his report concludes that in the United States the deployment of broadband to all Americans is reasonable and timely. This is ridiculous—and irresponsible [. . .]. There are 12 million school-aged children who are falling into the Homework Gap because they do not have the broadband at home they need for nightly schoolwork.”[xxiv] When we consider mobile data access, things are even worse. As commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn notes in his dissent, approximately 44 million Americans lack access to both fixed 25 Mbps/3 Mbps and 10 Mbps/3 Mbps mobile LTE.[xxv]

 By implementing equitable UBS programs, individuals and communities will have greater access to the means of cultural production. Through militating the economic forces that preclude universal access to Twitter, there is a greater potential for online spaces to be formed to enable the expansion of counterpublic spheres, “where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counter discourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs.”[xxvi] Twitter, as a platform run by a corporation (albeit a publicly traded one), does not have the potential to be the site where counterpublic formations take root. However, as can be identified by the use of Twitter in the now-prototypical examples of the Egyptian Revolution and the #OccupyWallStreet movements, there is sufficient historical evidence of Twitter fomenting intersubjective connections that allow for more robust actuation of revolutionary mobilizations “in real space.” We may also look to research concerning Twitter as a site where trans women have been able to effectively advocate and build community to show the already-lived potential for how the platform is being utilized by queer communities who have access to it.[xxvii] By advocating for UBS, we might advance a social and economic restructuring, allowing for increased viability for the cultural productions of those disempowered by capitalism and the systems of dominance imbricated with it. If queer digital choreographies are seen as markers of inclusion in LGBT group formations, and these choreographies take on new meaning with every iteration, then how can a holistically composed queer social body be effectively formed when millions of people do not have access to the basic means of this cultural production?

Secondly, policy proposals must address the social, political, and economic pressures that coerce individuals from various disempowered and disenfranchised populations to seek refuge in locked accounts. This need has been highlighted emphatically this year. Twitter announced on Friday, January 8, 2021, that former president Donald Trump had been permanently banned from the platform.[xxviii] At the time of this writing, the Twitter Safety Team has announced that over 70,000 accounts have been suspended from Twitter for promoting the fascistic QAnon conspiracy theory—a major catalyst in the insurrection day riots on January 6, 2021. Certain terms related to QAnon have also been blocked from being searchable on the platform.[xxix], [xxx] While this is indeed a positive step, it is clearly far too little, far too late. It took an acute violent white supremacist uprising that threatened the lives of the monied and empowered in Washington, DC, for Twitter to make this move. Apparently, over five years of blatantly racist, sexist, and xenophobic attacks and calls-to-violence were insufficient to ban Trump due to Terms of Services violations. This set of events highlights a need for massive shifts in the running and maintenance of the platform in regard to disallowing further violences proactively as opposed to reactively.

Through militating the influence of coercive powers—such as white supremacy, transmisogyny, etc.—we are presented with the conditions that would allow for a more equitable construction of a queer social body. This would include passing similar regulatory frameworks such as Germany’s 2017 Network Enforcement Act, which makes platforms such as Twitter susceptible to massive fines should offending (illegal) user-generated material not be removed within 24 hours.[xxxi], [xxxii] This works in tandem with German laws that explicitly prohibit certain forms of hate speech, thus making such things as the promotion of white nationalism illegal. This gestures towards certain concrete measures, such as a reworking of section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.[xxxiii] This act, as currently designed, protects companies such as Twitter from liability for posts generated by private users on the service. The act also notes that it is not intended to supersede any state laws, another measure that allows for a greater potential of administrative violences. 

While juridical means of establishing ethical and moral claims will necessarily be undercut by contextual forces of dominance and oppression, this does not mean that policy improvements engaging legal apparatuses must be abandoned as incrementalism. Rather, this is an acknowledgment that it is impossible to rely solely on legal apparatuses to produce liberation. These efforts must be made in conjunction with other forms of activism against discursive violences that operate outside the realm of the legal-political.

Finally, policy proposals must address the algorithms themselves, as constructed and utilized by Twitter. As shown in the recent example of Google’s alleged firing of Timnit Gebru, whose team compiled a (subsequently) shelved report critical of the company’s AI apparatus, the solution to algorithmic biases is not solvable by entry-level diversity measures.[xxxiv] Robust policies targeting the research practices of publicly traded companies must be enacted in order to address the coding of dominant oppressive logics into algorithms used by the public. These policies would include increased worker protections, expanded ownership rights of researchers over the materials they produce while working under the purview of companies, and enforced inclusion regulations for publicly traded companies. While these measures by their very nature would still leave workers open to various forms of administrative violence, these efforts made in tandem with the previous two sets of policy proposals offer an increased potential for more equitable democratic access to the means of producing knowledges in the (counter)public sphere. 

Conclusion

This article has been an attempt to integrate various analyses rooted in the humanities into social scientific approaches to technocultural discourse and policy design. I have highlighted the need for clear paths toward queer futurities that may be fostered and, in part, tracked through the stickiness of queer memes as Objects of Digital Embodiment. It is imperative to focus on the technocultural apparatuses that privilege neoliberally empowered subjects’ intelligibility rather than individual memes. This includes shifting algorithms to create a more equitable visibility of various choreographies on Twitter, drafting laws that address wider sociocultural forms of oppression and silence, and creating a better system for reporting and removing actors of hegemonic violence (e.g., Nazis). The current lack of regulation reifies the conditions that require certain users to remain trapped in the relative anonymity of locked profiles if they wish to openly discuss their lived realities.

This is not just an issue of what happens on Twitter. No type of liberatory future may be achieved solely through a monetized channel of communication, especially one which so severely limits thick communications on the user end. This is an issue of recognizing and enacting Internet access as a human right with equal impunity. Changes in policy and in cultural norms are imperative for shifting cultural understandings on Twitter itself, while changes in the interface and recognitions of performances of identities on Twitter may help impact policy change and cultural norms outside the confines of this particular website. This is not a techno-determinist analysis, and these are not bifurcated movements towards—and understandings of—liberatory justice. They are co-constitutive and provide a potentially robust lens through which to track equity in economic and socio-cultural systems rooted in a bottom-up method of the cultural (re)production. 

References attached.

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