For some of us, the Asda #MentalPatient incident is etched on our memories as a Twitterstorm which took an issue from relative obscurity, to mainstream media notoriety in the space of an evening.
Today a serendipitous scroll through Twitter led me to happen upon another corporate blunder – an indication of how much further we have to go in reducing stigmatising attitudes towards mental distress. Put simply, the @joythestore responded in a misjudged manner to a legitimate question from an individual on Twitter about a card they were stocking in their store. A couple of tweets later and @joythestore had unwittingly provided perfect content for another online protest.
Rather than discuss the specifics of the offensive tweets, I will consider how the technical affordances of Twitter and the social practices of individuals combine to enable a viral protest. In order to do this, I draw on four affordances of ‘networked publics’ which, according to Boyd, are notably different in character from physical public spaces in the following ways:
- Persistence: the durability of online expressions and content
- Visibility: the potential audience who can bear witness
- Spreadability: the ease with which content can be shared
- Searchability: the ability to find content (Boyd, 2014, p.11).
I use these four themes as a basis to examine how a mixture of technical affordances and deliberate social practices by people on Twitter, have turned the #JoyCott episode into a viral phenomenon.
Persistence – the persistence of content on social media enables asynchronous conversations to take place without temporal limitations. Persistence also means that content can be hard to remove. Practices on social networking sites such as Twitter conflate the technical affordance of persistence through the deliberate actions of re-tweeting and taking screen shots which are then shared. Whole conversations can be curated using platforms such as Storify. At the time of writing @Sectioned_ has created Storify with a selection of tweets about #JoyCott and I am writing a blog post on the topic; these are actions which exploit the fact that social networking sites are designed to enable persistence – they create a great opportunity for social movements but a headache for corporates keen to control the message.
Visibility – social media enable us to share and access information easily with potentially large audiences and without spatial or temporal limitations. In the past a complaint to a store such as @joythestore might have been made in person at the counter, over the phone, by email or letter – all media which have a limited audience. Now we can instantly make our complaints public and shareable not only to our intended audiences but potentially far beyond.
Journalists not only have easy access to a potential story but they can easily gauge public opinion and go straight to the source of the story for content – a journalist from the Independent tweeted the individual who first posted the photo and a news article was posted later the same day. In addition to The Metro, the Mirror contains an online news article about the incident along with an instant yes’ or ‘no’ poll to the question ‘Do you find Joy the Store’s tweets about bipolar offensive?’
The movement of a story from social media to mainstream media means reaching new and different audiences. Visibility is a great boon for a social movement but is a problem for corporates when it contains messages that may harm their brand.
Spreadability – at the time of writing this post (Sunday evening) the original tweet has been extensively re-tweeted. According to Twitter analytics engine Topsy there have been over 7000 mentions of @joythestore in the last 24 hours from a baseline of virtually no interactions at all in the preceding days. Whilst social media affords spreadability, it takes people to do the spreading – it is notable that, in addition to people both sharing the content and discussing it with each other, many also strategically shared tweets with mental health charities, journalists and newspapers to ensure greater reach and spread.
Searchability – search engines are designed to enable us to search and find information. I undertook a quick search for ‘Joy the Store’ and the second item after the promoted ad is a news item in the Independent which has been written the same day as the Twitter storm began to build. As well as this technical affordance, practices on Twitter increase the searchability of a particular topic. In this instance the hashtag #JoyCott creates a searchable string where any tweet using that hasthag can be seen together – a canny way of increasing amplification. The last thing @joythestore will want is for a potential online customer to come across a negative news story when typing their name in a search engine. But for the customer, this provides new information which they may use to inform their buying choices.
I have a hunch that the four affordances of persistence, visibility, spreadability and searchability are particularly salient when it comes to challenging embedded stereotyped attitudes via social media. The fact that many people deliberately referred to their lived experience when challenging @joythestore could have a positive effect of creating a sense of shared identity and community, negating the isolating effects of stigma and promoting self-esteem (Baym, 2010, p.84). This sense of community and connectedness can be important for sustaining social movements and gives switched-on corporates a gauge of public attitudes and mood on a particular issue. The fact that there is an active community of people talking about mental health on Twitter gives the potential of instant amplification.
In conclusion, I am fascinated by the combination of technical affordances and deliberate practices on social media that enable people to achieve purposeful aims both individually and collectively. These are good lessons for social movements and salutary tales for corporates.
Baym, N. Personal Connections in the Digital Age (Polity Press, 2010)
Boyd, D. It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens (Yale University Press, 2014)