Interview by Özge Korkmaz
Özge Korkmaz: I want to start with a general question. How would you describe this book to an anthropological audience, and do you see it as belonging to any particular theoretical genealogy or subfield?
Lauren Zentz: I must say that I have always seen myself as a theoretical nomad of sorts. That being said, I find that linguistic anthropology and especially sociolinguistics are good homes for such a type of scholar. I believe that I can say that my work is inspired by work that comes from various fields but that tends toward the ethnographic. Thus in this book, as I relay in the preface, I draw on diverse work ranging from the feminist qualitative studies of Lather and Smithies, to Mendoza-Denton’s and Heller’s crucial work that I tend to consider more typical for the field of linguistic anthropology; I draw on ethnographic work that is not really described as such from foremost political scientists like Theda Skocpol; ethnographic work that draws more on cultural anthropological writing paradigms in Graeber’s work; to work that blends genres, like Perry Gilmore’s ethnography-slash-memoir that also taps into long-held conversations across sociolinguistics as well as cognitive and theoretical linguistics. I read in media studies and general discourse analysis theory and methods, in addition to the above. In the end, then, I would say that my work is quite interdisciplinary, but this includes a heavy lean towards deeply qualitative and ethnographic work. And, as many who know me and my work would tell you without a moment’s hesitation, my work is of course deeply inspired by Jan Blommaert’s, whose work I also consider to be deeply political, deeply interdisciplinary, and both deeply sociolinguistic and linguistic anthropological.
Özge Korkmaz: Since this is an internet-based ethnography, I am curious as to how you define your field-site, and whether you struggled at times with working outside of the traditional domains of research? I ask this question recognizing that every ethnography comes with its problems about where the field-site begins and ends, so I wonder what those problems would be for students of social media.
Lauren Zentz: This was indeed a challenging question, and something that there is not a robust literature on to my knowledge, especially when it comes to incorporating online and social media communities/communications, so I did find myself really improvising and having to define things for myself. Ultimately for any ethnography, of course, this is what we want anyway – the field site needs to be defined from the ground up because life and community organization generally don’t line up with our preconceived notions of them. But I did find myself on perpetually shifting ground, I would say, for at least the first year (of two) that I was conducting data collection. In this study, I started out thinking that I would conduct a study of the leadership of the state organization of Pantsuit Republic Texas. This was a group that lived throughout the state but mostly in Austin, Dallas, and Houston. Given that we only met online on Slack, Facebook, and a group phone call website called FreeConferenceCall.com, I was of course unable to gain the trust of the people who I’d imagined would become my research participants – the eight or so members of the state board (although I was given permission to start this study from two of the leaders of the state board, who I already knew and who lived in Houston). Because I could not gain people’s trust, I simply could not do the study in the way that I had first dreamt it up. And so my field site had to shift dramatically. I stepped back, continued my secretarial duties for the state board, and then reflected on how I had gotten involved in the organization in the first place, and only then did I realize that I needed to go to the people who I already knew. These were, again, the two people from the state board who had initially authorized the study, and then people with whom I had worked in the leadership of PSR’s local counterpart, Pantsuit Republic Houston. So I went back to these folks and changed my strategy to collecting data from their Facebook posts both in and outside of both PSR and PSRH’s secret Facebook groups, as well as research interviews and field notes. I asked sixteen or so people in total to participate, and ultimately ended up with a total of eight. Of these eight, some were more available than others for various work, home, and activism related reasons, and so I collected more and less information from each depending on their individual circumstances and my relationships with them each individually.
After all of this strategy shifting, my primary source of data became Facebook. So this was primarily an online ethnography, but let’s not forget that there is not a separation between online and offline life, contrary to some early (and continuing) beliefs that online life is supposedly fake and offline life is putatively real. As with every technology, from the telegraph to the phone and the television and so on, these have all been integrated into our lives. We don’t have a TV-watching life and a non-TV watching life; we just have a life, in which we watch TV and then refer to what we’ve watched after the fact. Similarly, we have a life in which we engage on various online social media platforms via our smartphones, our tablets, our desktop and laptop computers, and so on. On these sites we engage in individual chats, group chats, secret group pages, public pages, our personal walls on which we post publicly and/or privately, and so on, and then we met with several of the people we were just talking to online and we continue the conversation or move on to different topics. I engaged with my research participants online, but I also met up with them in person, at state board meetings, local PSRH public meetings, protests and other events. So while I emphasize online data in this book, it is informed by a more holistic experience while I was acting as a member (albeit peripheral) of the leadership groups of these organizations.
Özge Korkmaz: As ethnographers, we already know that whatever it is that gives political identities their unity of meaning is not static but processual. Yet we are also pretty good at documenting the ways people strive to create a somewhat stable one that is consistent with its own facts. What does this identity-work look like in the internet? What resources and techniques are available to people?
Lauren Zentz: I actually just met with a couple of my research participants the other day – now that they had contributed to the construction of a monograph through their own words via social media posts and interviews, they wanted to a have a sort of mini book club about it. It was really fun. But the reason I bring it up is just to say that we talked about how much data I ended up collecting in this study. Over 13,000 screenshots from over 6,000 original posts. Plus interviews, plus field notes, and so on. It was so, so overwhelming. But I found that something similar to what has happened in my previous studies happened as I sorted through all the data – and even as I simply watched my participants’ posts go by on my news feed on a daily basis. What happened is that the themes started to repeat themselves. This is sort of a standard, nonformal cue for how we know we’ve finally collected enough data – the themes that we’ve seen arise through our grounded, inductive experience start to repeat themselves. So as I watched these participants “write themselves into being” (boyd 2010) – particularly as political and activist beings – over the two-ish years of posts and interactions I had with them, I started to see the themes of the narratives they were constructing, over time and across interactions, about themselves, their activist group(s), and the geopolitical formations in which they found themselves, and this is how I saw those stable and unified stories emerge over time.
Özge Korkmaz: Lastly, increasingly our lives become suffused with contradictions that emerge out of a perceived gap between ethical commitments, on one hand, and the real situation, on the other. What does the world of internet activism have to offer us in terms of contemporary configurations of morality and politics? Do you think this desire to get involved in things, especially against the background of the rise of social movements across the globe, teach us something new about politics and political systems?
Lauren Zentz: I’m really not sure that it teaches us anything new about people’s desire to get involved because I’m not sure we actually do get more involved. I don’t want this prior statement, however, to come across as contradictory with the critiques that I posit (building on others’ work) in the book regarding notions such as “slacktivism”. I do think that there is value to, as Dennis (2019) reframes the former term, “microactivism”. Let’s take, for instance, a conversation that was held in the secret PSRH group in late 2018 – so two years after the formation of these groups/after Trump’s election. Lucy, a leader in both PSRH and PSR who was very active both on and offline in these and ally organizations, wrote a post describing her metamorphosis, basically from a rather soft-spoken person with opinions she didn’t bother voicing much into a very outspoken person who was not at all shy about her beliefs and opinions, political or otherwise. After she authored this post, numerous people who participated online in the PSRH group responded that they, too, had undergone such a change. They had shifted their relationships, gotten rid of people who did not support their more outspoken selves, spoken up more to family members with whom they disagreed, and so on. And those responding to Lucy’s posts were certainly not as active offline as she was; however, their membership in this support community that had come together around a shared set of political beliefs/ideologies after the 2016 election had provided them at least one important source of social support that enabled them to stand firm in how they felt about the US’s political circumstances at the time. So in this case we see that online activities that might be derided by some as slacktivism were actually quite the contrary – they were in many senses life changing. So perhaps the growth of online activism at best has taught me that lots of people do want to get involved, and they really do care, but the burdens of regular life prevent them from doing anything more than talking online about what they care about. Face to face activism, as I witnessed it through my engagements with my research participants as well as the other leaders of these groups, is immensely time consuming, and, as I write in the book, people with families, full time jobs, and so on, quite frankly might be relieved to have a social media outlet where they can feel connected to people who feel the same as them because they certainly don’t have the time, energy, bandwidth, and so on to meet up in face to face activities and “do the work”. They instead provide and participate in a sort of critical mass of moral and ideological support that helps keep the movement moving.
In this light, I suppose it is appropriate to end where I began, mentioning Jan Blommaert, who referred to online activities as expansions of our communicative repertoires. As he and Ondřej Prochazka wrote specifically in reference to online activism, this “knowledge activism” in online spaces must be “serious business” (Prochazka and Blommaert 2019), and as such worthy of serious consideration as an integral part of how people communicate throughout the myriad contexts of their daily lives. In this book, I hope to have given insight into how such serious business played itself out in a quite momentous shift in national, state-level, and local politics in the US.