Oral History and Feminist Knowledge Production

Social Media Epistemologies

I sat criss-cross applesauce on a small ottoman, both my laptop and recorder within reach on a nearby table. Nola leaned up against the frame of my bed. She shifted and fidgeted every so often, the ground surely not as comfortable. Both of us were barefoot in my dorm room settling in for our interview as the clock ticked slowly toward ten PM. She held her tea with one hand over where the lid was missing, cupping the steam as it rolled up over the top and into her palm. She told me about the times she’d been interviewed before. It’s no wonder why she’s such a popular subject; her careful and eloquent delivery displays a thoughtfulness as she speaks.

Nola and I'd met in person early in 2018, but she’d reached out as a senior in high school committed to Oxy. It was the beginning of a fantastic friendship. I admired Nola as a woman of exceptional perspective, zealously grounded in her values, while a hard working and level- headed student who continuously set an exceptional example for everyone surrounding her. While Nola and I share some aspects of our everyday- we are both female athletes at Occidental College, employed through different departments as social media coordinators- we also have distinct and significant aspects of ourselves which diverge, and paint the social world around us quite uniquely. I am older in age and school year than Nola; I am also white, while Nola is multiracial, with a spunky Italian mother and Jamacain father. Dynamics of age and race rarely insert themselves in the everyday interactions between Nola and I, but in every other way our differences in identity can take on new vectors of power-- and in the research setting this is no different.

Before all else, it is necessary to acknowledge our relative positionalities and the ways that power and submission affect a researcher-subject environment, as well as how those dynamics encourage different memories to surface in attempts at constructing oral histories. As Joan Sangster discusses in her article, Telling Our Stories, “it is crucial that we ask how gender, race and class, as structural and ideological relations, have shaped the construction of historical memory”(Sangster, 7). Various methodologies exist to privilege the interview subjects; however, the entire structure of the interview and post-interview analysis lies within the interviewer’s jurisdiction, which of course shifts the power of framing conversation towards the researcher. Either way, it is vital that the researcher, as they have the “final word” in their analysis of the interview, realizes the input of their own personal biases and agendas to purport their claims, and does their best to limit these tendencies. In my attempt to redefine this existing interview structure as much as possible, my research and this project are both shaped as “deconstructing” the layers of knowledge and values expressed throughout the course of this interview and beyond (Sangster, 7). As well acquainted as I am with Nola, I used my full knowledge of who she is as a person and what she articulated as her beliefs- both within this interview and in her life- to give the most authentic and informed representation of her possible, thus to begin a model of equitably extracting theory from practice, and to ground such in the experience of the individual. This is not solely the goal of this project, but a vital aspect in the pursuit of all feminist empirical research inquiries.

Nola and I’s conversation was centered around generational differences in the ways that social media functions in personal and global self-identification, as well as how trends and communication styles are created, valued, shared, and used, within these spaces online. Ultimately, she contended with the ways that social media sets the standards of online interaction, and has created new measures to determine cultural capital and patterns of tastes and trends. In doing so, social media’s cultural mediation techniques mirror the ways that mainstream knowledge production has historically been carried out: we create measurements of assessing value and validity, incorporate those concepts into traditional learning environments, and ultimately we share and deepen our understandings of cultural phenomena and knowledge deemed “worthy.” However, these spaces online disseminate the process of knowledge production in a way that allows women and the youth to reclaim their experiential realities, and become validated in ways that alter the projection of what we can, do, and will consider “knowledge”.

This counters how historical hegemonic academic knowledge production processes function in the lives of scholars and in the academy: there are “knowers” who garner support for their “truth” by showcasing its axiological relationship to existing knowledge, all of this is to say that the process becomes strategically and increasingly monopolized by those contributing most to the bodies of legitimated knowledge. This constructs and maintains guidelines for interactions and expressions for those within the “know”, Ultimately, marginalized groups cannot conform to the narrow process of “truth” valuation since their experiential realities are not accounted for within the standards of deciding value, based off of existing truth.

This concept is increasingly nuanced as we consider the concept and discussions of  “digital fluency”- which suggests that the real producers of technological knowledge are the youngest generations, having been born into a world riddled with tech, they are thereby fluent in its usage. This is to say that the norms and standards of social media have been centralized and contained by the younger generations, otherwise known as “digital natives” in today’s “digital revolution” (Prensky). Web 2.0 is by definition anything which functions on a user-generated database and interactive features putting the agency of website navigation into the hands of the users. Social media ia certainly a singularity in the advancement of Web 2.0, and contributes to the growing volume of Web 2.0 content created and shared on the internet everyday. Marc Prensky in his article, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” explains how Web 2.0 created “‘native speakers’ of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet.”

So if the youth are the native speakers of the internet, then how have they uniformly decided the specifics of their language?

I will begin by deconstructing Nola’s interpretation of how social media functions as it forms and orders social truth and validates knowledge. I intend to uphold my integrity as the interviewer by deconstructing instead of merely interpreting, which Sangster warns can lead to an abuse of the inherent power I have in being the voice of representation for my subjects (Sangster, 10). I start by applying the concepts and definitions from class to our conversation. Although Nola herself does not use the word, the way that she frames these sets of knowledge inherent to social media usage can be likened to an epistemology, especially as Gayle Leatherby defines it as
“a framework or theory for specifying the constitution and generation of knowledge about the social world; that is, it concerns how to understand the nature of ‘reality’”(Letherby, 19).
Nola explains several ways that social “realities” are constructed across social media: Linkedin is useful for “the possibility of finding internships”, while Facebook and Instagram can threaten her productivity, causes her to “not (be) productive and being distracted on it”, so she intermittently deletes them from her phone. Identity and self-presentation are malleable and virtually in-verifiable online, as Nola recalls “I created a fake Facebook account, and my name was like- I think it was Keisha- and my profile picture was just like, this white flower.” Even after changing it to her real name and picture, she says, “I’m still like, 27 on there, or something, so it's my fake age...”. Nola also remembered how these actions were perceived. Nola's friends did not question her real age after seeing it was twenty seven on Facebook. However, she remembers that her own mother struggled to understand how her username made sense, and in fifth grade, “my (email) username was like NolaAderson37, and my mom was like, ‘That means people are gonna think you’re thirty seven years old!... you need to delete that!’” Despite the understandable connection her mother saw between her username and Nola’s perceived age, Nola knew that the online community (her friends) receiving that information would understand that it was simply that- a username! Her mother’s misunderstandings illustrate a second facet to the production of epistemology, that it not only determines, “what ‘knowledge’ is and how to recognize it, who are the knowers and by what means someone becomes one, but also the means by which competing knowledge claims are adjudicated and some rejected in favour of another/others.”(Leatherby, 20). Had Nola’s other friends on Facebook ever questioned her age, Nola’s belief that the numbers on her profile and in her username would remain arbitrary details would have proven false; however, she explains how none ever did due to their mutual understanding that numbers, words, and symbols simply exist to personalize the details of one’s account domain. 

Within the first few minutes of our conversation, while fleshing out the nature of the networks we engage in, Nola rattled off numerous other standards for different sites and apps, explaining specific ways of interacting within each. She tells me she “really values Snapchat” for the group messages, prefers it to text messages, and as a result uses Snapchat way more; while, on Instagram, Nola believes the less frequent you post, the better. She tells me that she has tendencies to “just scroll through people’s pictures aimlessly” on Instagram, but only watches her close friends’ Snapchat stories “I don’t really watch people’s stories that much, like, I’ll watch like my friends and those are usually in front so I just watch those.” She even tells me how she created Linkedin with “the most specific goal” of any other social media, and although “it is technically social media… it’s not something I ever, like, scroll through.” All of the specifics and logic for varying modes of interaction among these platforms further illustrate how ways of knowing are generated on specific platforms, and the rules of each are essentially mutually exclusive.

Language on social media is both a necessary and futile expression of one’s synergy within and on the platform, as well as code for what “reflects the centrality of power and authority” (Leatherby, 34).  Nola’s language chosen for the aspects of media she discussed, and the ways that the language she chose was verbalized and produced reveals her proximity to knowing how to analyze the interactions specific populations have with social media. Nola is herself a social media coordinator for Occidental College, and has worked alongside many other staff: some in the mid twenties, others in their late adulthood. To say she has some expertise in what kinds of content gets shared and liked the most is an understatement. Nola’s ability to articulate the landscape of social media and derive meaning from the interactions had within it is likened to professionalism. As so, her language demonstrates her profound sense of understanding-- her exceptional authority in determining these meanings compared to any other person I know. Does this stem from her position and experience, or is it inherent in her generational situatedness and intimacy with technology when compared to her mother’s generation? It is no doubt the interplay between the two which lead to such a strong grasp on social media’s power. 

When it comes to language as an exchange of meaningful communication, Nola was quick to point out how social media literally has created its own language, as “people reference, like, memes, and funny videos, and vines a lot.” She admits that “sometimes, during conversations with friends, they’ll be talking about something, and they’ll say some random phrase or whatever, and I’ll be like what? Like, what? That doesn’t make sense…” until they pull up a meme they were referencing or a trending video on twitter. Nola tells me how in this way she believes, “having social media benefits in a social aspect because I think if I didn’t have it… half the time I wouldn’t otherwise understand why people are saying certain things or, or really, what was going on in conversations.” As Nola explained in much more depth throughout the interview, this language is not universal, and in fact in her own life she sees how the fluency of such languages is reserved for only for the generations who can access and understand them- like Prensky discusses- the Digital Natives.

While having a solid grasp of the realities of social media today, Nola talked about her own progress to this well-versed understanding, beginning with her inability to navigate certain websites simply because she was young and was unfamiliar with the communities and “rules” of them: “I feel like I genuinely didn't even know how to use (any social media) when I first got it,” she says. Upon her first try at an Instagram account, she says, “I didn't know what it was, I thought it was like, uh, just like a photo editing app, so I have this old Instagram account from when I was 11 years old or something, with a bunch of weird, weird pictures of just me and my friends...I didn’t know other people could see (my pictures)!” A milestone for Nola was when she received her first phone after being limited to a desktop computer for most of her childhood: “I didn't get my first phone until I was a freshman in high school, and that was an iPhone so then I could access all the apps really easily, um, and I think that's when I started to get into it more.” Social media’s golden key is no doubt the smartphone. As children get introduced to technology earlier in life- and thus earlier than previous generations- their readiness for integration into the world of social media sooner is growing. When I asked Nola if she noticed social media’s effect on ‘social norms’, she points out, “it’s hard to say (what the effect is) when you're in it, and when you’ve grown up with media your whole life.” A clear distinction is drawn in how Nola perceived social media’s effects on these generations, she says, “I feel like mostly everyone has some sort of... something- except my grandma and grandpa ‘cuz they don’t have computers or phones.” Nola recognizes the older generation as being the most removed from the cultures facilitated on social media. She specified the habits of pre-phone adolescents, as compared to the elderly and the current young-adult population: there are noticeable differences in their abilities to learn, utilize, and advance the features of social media- even to access them in the first place. The general distinctions were blown to full proportion when Nola began discussing her own mother and sister’s relationships with social media, which vary greatly and ultimately attest to her propositions that young women are the masters and gatekeepers of social media norms.

Perhaps the strongest theme to surface in Nola’s discussion of social media practices was the way that value is assigned and determined on different platforms. These values arise out of questions such as: what information is deemed worthy of sharing? How does the reception of specific content contribute to its value? What ways does social media’s collective usage allow it to garner more general, less individually-based, notions of value? As Nola quite perfectly states,

I think it brings a lot of value socially.

So how is social value determined? As Gayle Leatherby states in Feminist Research in Theory and Practice, “the dominant group in society has the greatest influence in determining a culture’s overall outlook”(Leatherby, 28). This system of influence is reproduced on social media, where dominant groups determine the online culture’s outlook- attitudes, perceptions, judgements- of both the content that is disseminated and the people who engage with it. 

The dominant group of social media users are the youth, and as an avid engager herself, Nola’s summary of what made different platforms valuable speaks to larger, societal trends of social media usage and interaction. Nola mentioned Snapchat more than any other app- in just the thirty minute clip I’ve provided, she mentions it ten different times. Snapchat has become such a central and important part of Nola’s social media routine because it fosters a basic and easily navigable communication manner, is especially efficient for its low barriers to entry and high yield of response, therefore creating an optimal platform for communication. Nola mentions repeatedly how Snapchat communication is helpful in her busy life- with friends all over the country, from her hometown in Massachusetts to her college in Los Angeles, “it's not always possible to facetime all the time, so (Snapchat) is the next best thing”. Especially important is how Snapchat is “quick”. Nola uses it for, “a quick little, ‘hey whats up’” and as “a quick easy way to talk to (friends) and just see what they're doing in their lives…” Snapchat’s basic features differ from mainstream modes of communication in that there are no requirements of synchronization- users can send and respond to snaps that they’ve received at any time- whether in the last few seconds or days- and don’t have to depend on the recipient being immediately available to uphold their end of the conversation. While this is certainly an inconvenience to anyone looking to have a lengthy or urgent conversation, it is helpful to the people- the youth- like Nola whose lives are sporadic and demanding, and who don’t require those kinds of conversations, instead just want to “send funny, weird dances… whatever we want, super quick.” 

Not only is the timeliness of the communication ideal, but the nature of the communication that Snapchat provides is equally efficient for the youth who indulge in it. According to Nola, “The best thing that happened to Snapchat was the group chats”, and she claims that her and her friends use Snapchat group chats even more than text group chats. One reason that Snapchat’s interface takes the cake may be because, as Nola puts it, “it's cool to put a face to a name”- in other words, it incorporates text into a primarily picture based messaging platform. 

But putting faces to names does more than simply add versatility to the nature of the communication, it has created a whole culture, bred on social media, of aesthetics towards beauty which now can be easily manipulated- angles and lighting, editing and filters, all of it is product of the desirability to use Snapchat over other, non-pictorial forms of communication.  

What does the privileging of these values tell us about the nature of social media interaction and the qualities of those who use it?

For one, the usage has to be fast, efficient, and for that to be the case, one must be able to easily learn the ins-and-outs of every tool and feature of the platform. It’s one thing to use Snapchat’s messaging feature to contact a friend- it's another to send challenges to your friends in a group message to in-app gaming competitions and post your friend’s responses to your private story (something that requires the combination of multiple new and complex features). Conversely, it is another thing to not even have Snapchat at all. The ways that Nola characterizes Snapchat’s value is directly in line with Prensky’s observations that, “digital Natives are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite” (Prensky).

After discussing more in-depth our personal relationships to different platforms- Instagram, Snapchat, Linkedin, to name a few- Nola began describing the ways that others in her life- specifically her family members- used those same platforms. According to Sangster, it is common for women to “downplay their own activities, emphasizing the role of other family members in their recollections” in their interviews (Sangster, 7). Upon listening back to the recordings, when Nola began discussing the people around her- friends, family members, general online communities- her diction became clearer, her articulation picked up, her speech flowed a bit more fluidly than when I asked her questions regarding her own personal position or viewpoint. As so, Nola had no problem talking about the ways that the women around her used social media.

I asked Nola to elaborate on the general patterns that characterize demographically diverse populations’ social media uses, to which she almost immediately began discussing her sister. She begins by saying, “my sister is three years younger than me, um, so she’s a junior in high school, and I think I-I love her Instagram.” I have never met Nola’s sister, but I do follow her on Instagram. I’ve noticed the persona she creates in her posts, the playfulness she exhibits in her style choices, and the complete ownership she expresses over everything she chooses to display and promote. Nola described it as, “for her, it seems like her Instagram is a form of self expression”; unlike Nola who says, “If I have a cool picture, I just put it up, whatever” she believes her sister is “very meticulous” with what she posts. Nola seemed to deeply admire how “it really displays, like, who she is what she values and gives a strong message about her.” Nola repeated this several times, her inflection picking up a sort of buoyancy. She then laid out the ways that her sister’s Instagram differs from her own, and how “sometimes, I do wish I could be more like that”, and how “she really does a good job of displaying (who she is) through her Instagram… which I found, like, I haven’t ever really been able to do…” In comparing herself to her sister, Nola explained that it takes a lot of effort to make one’s Instagram that expressive and meaningful- an endeavor she thinks may be a bit too much for herself. Whereas Nola’s mother is described as someone unfamiliar and thus unsure of how to navigate the spaces of social media, her sister has acquired well above her initial cultural capital. Part of the historical processes of knowledge production includes deciphering the “knowers” from the “non-knowers”- what is done on social media by expressing oneself, which ultimately gets judged and evaluated for denoting further cultural capital. Leatherby stresses, “we need to study how particular groups are able to construct dominant frameworks of meaning, and how and why meanings are constructed into theory, into truth”(Leatherby, 34). In the processes of learned habits and discriminating values expressed on social media, the dominant frameworks are employed by those able to reveal an equally authentic yet elusive version of themselves- basically, able to exploit the systems of social valuation present on these apps which enable elevation in status and thus garner more and more influence. As Leatherby states, “the dominant group in society has the greatest influence in determining a culture’s overall outlook, and as part of this dominant group is able to legitimize its own superior position and to subordinate and exclude the perspectives of others”(Leatherby, 28). The easiest way to subordinate a group of “non-knowers” is by simply pointing out the flaws in their comprehension, by illuminating their mistakes and discrediting their ability to understand the importance or function of a situated knowledge.

When Nola talked about her mom, who she dubbed “an Instagram gal now” after deleting her Facebook, Nola says she just “doesn’t really like social media”. 

Nola and I had just discussed at length our favorite, most useful, and most used features and apps and platforms, so when the conversation turned to her discussion of her mom’s views of all of this, it noticeably shifted the tone. Nola continued on, and told me about how her mom once got hacked on Instagram, “and she was so sad cuz she was like ‘I lost all my pictures now!’ And I was like ‘No mom, you can just screenshot them off your old Instagram’, and she’s like ‘I lost them!’” Nola concluded the anecdote by saying, “she uses (Instagram)... but I’m not sure she 100 percent understands everything about it.” The other details of her mother’s social media use deviates little from the points she emphasized here. In the same storyline, she described how she recently got a tattoo and wanted to post a picture of it, but did not want her mom to find out, “so I removed her as a follower, and she didn’t know that she wasn’t following me for so long, and I would like, DM her, and all this stuff and like, she just never thought to check, I guess...” When her mom finally did see Nola’s tattoo at the beach, she was surprised to learn that Nola had just simply removed her as a follower of hers; “she was like ‘I didn’t even know you could do that!’” recalls Nola. Along with her anecdotes and silly side tales of her mother’s social media hiccups, Nola constantly refered to her mom’s social media habits as “funny”: Nola says her mother “always slides up on, like, my Instagram stories and says some funny stuff”, and when I asked her to elaborate on her mother’s social media tendencies she started with “she’s... um… she’s a funny one” before describing to me the two stories above. Prior to the tattoo cover up story, she says to me that “it’s funny, I actually removed her as a follower of mine…” The constant reference to her mother’s lack of social media adaptability, and trouble navigating content and platforms as “funny” pointed towards Nola’s interpretation of her mother’s trouble: a harmless stumble as she tried to learn the standards of interactions on these websites, and even just figure out how to use the basic features of each one. Nola’s reiteration of how it was comical to watch her mother struggle with the tedious tasks of social media reminds us that, as Sangster discusses, “how women explain, rationalise and make sense of their past offers insight into the social and material framework within which they operated, the perceived choices and cultural patterns they faced, and the complex relationships between individual consciousness and culture”(Sangster, 6). Nola’s ability to laugh, in a way, at her mother’s failed or misunderstood efforts to navigate social media illuminated her position as the “knower”, the one who possesses the knowledge and skill required to master the methodology and norms of social media use. As the knower, she can ridicule those who fail to master what she has. And this is not to say that she does it in a demeaning way- rather that she can comfortably place judgement on those around her to fail what she has succeeded in, and for a large amount of the younger generations of women, social media happens to be their expertise. As Leatherby reminds us, “language does not determine reality in a fixed way, but it does provide dominant frames of reference and dominant meanings which we attach to experiences at any one time”, meaning that Nola’s use of the term “funny” does not mean that these struggles are objectively commercial, or that every member of the group of “knowers” would agree, rather that it goes to show how the majority of those comfortable in their position as dominant, and who have a firm grasp on the modes of interaction associated with different social media platforms, will more likely than not view the attempts of those outside of their group- in this case, the older generations who attempt to use social media and other complicated pieces of technology- as entertaining, and whose failures provided further reinforcement for what the dominant group already reaffirmed among themselves- that they truly are superior in their skills. (Leatherby, 34). 

Towards New Understandings 

Going into this project, I simply wanted to have an open discussion about the realities of social media in both my life and the life of one of my closest friends. Especially as we have been exposed to it through on-campus jobs, in addition to our identities as “digital natives”, there exists an interesting tension between just enough and too-much interaction on these sites, and contemporary debates around the usefulness and effects social media has on one’s quality of life is not to be ignored going forward in this digital age and ongoing discussion.

After close analysis of the language and ideas presented throughout our interview, Nola’s ideological construction of social media mirrors the general ways epistemologies are created in the academic cannon. However, the dominant groups of “knowers” and those who are receiving an advantage on these sites are the youth, as Nola chronicles the impressive grasp that her own sister has on Instagram, as compared to her mother’s struggle to immerse herself in the Facebook community. This has been explored in the past by digital and media scholars including Marc Prensky, who coined the terms “digital natives”, “digital immigrants”, and “digital fluency” to describe the growing gaps in understanding between the older and younger generations.

Social media culture functions as a type of situated knowledge- within it there are hierarchies of users and behaviors, as well as different levels of fluency, familiarity, and cultural capital associated- therefore, social media practices are a type of acquired knowledge themselves, mirroring for the youth what the academic cannon has symbolized for men: a platform to elevate and center themselves as most influential on those who enter into the similar arena. Nola’s construction of social media is developed as she discusses the different ways that other women in her life use various platforms and how their generational differences play into their abilities to use and understand these sites; thus, she posits that the youth have the ultimate control and authority on social media platforms, with older generations becoming less adept to integrating within these communities, having a harder time doing so as they become further removed from the younger populations who control the norms and standards of these sites. 

I reiterate what Letherby stated in her article, “meanings are constructed into truth, into theory”(Letherby, 34). Taking one woman’s interpretation of the deeper meanings of an aspect of her life, and constructing it into theory is just the beginning of elevating the social collective consciousness and expanding what we define as truth and knowledge. Even as I have described the ways that knowledge hierarchies are created and maintained on social media, there are legitimate and important reasons that fluency is not as accessible to the “digital immigrants”, they hold their own valuable ways of interacting with social media. 

All meaning should be dissected for their truth; all meanings hold knowledge and have the potential to produce theory.

Works Cited:

Leatherby, Gayle. Feminist Research in Theory and Practice.Feminist Research in Theory and Practice, Buckingham: Open University Press (2003).

Sangster, Joan. Telling Our Stories: Feminist Debates and the Use of Oral History. Women's History Review, (1994) 3:1, 5-28, DOI: 10.1080/09612029400200046

Prensky, Marc. Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon (NCB University Press, Vol. 9 No. 5, October 2001) © 2001.

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