Feminist Activism and Digital Networks: Between Empowerment and Vulnerability
Feminist Activism and Digital Networks: Between Empowerment and Vulnerability

The CSC research field is increasingly influenced by new media technologies, making it increasingly necessary to understand the true impact of technology on social movements. In her book Feminist Activism and Digital Networks: Between Empowerment and Vulnerability, University of Brighton Senior Lecturer, Dr Aristea Fotopoulou investigates the links between feminism and modern technology. Across themes of bodily autonomy, pornography, reproduction and queer social life, this powerful text advocates new ways of thinking about digital media and feminism. It aims to question arguments that identify digital media’s relationship with activism as solely negative or positive. 

In this Q&A, Dr Fotopoulou shares some key insights about the book, and her motivations in writing it.

What was the initial motivation to write this book?

Digital media technologies are changing the ways we live, the ways we interact with each other, and the ways we engage politically. Political ideas more generally and the political ideas specifically about gender and sexual equality are becoming more accessible, and we see a resurgence of feminist activism between young women today for example. But there is also a new wave of misogynist trolling and gay cyberbullying online, such as the Gamergate controversy. My book comes at a time when, because of these developments, there is pressing need to examine how feminist identities and practices are changing. The basic premise of the book is that with and in digital media, feminist and queer activism remains embodied, lived and socially situated. It is a complex set of identities and cultures that cannot be studied merely through the simplistic lenses that perceive the internet as inherently democratic. Media theory that examines the role of digital media technologies and the internet for democracy often leave out an analysis of the role of gender and sexuality in embodied media practices. We cannot fully understand the processes and practices of queer and feminist activism in digital media without an understanding of embodied media practices.And we cannot appreciate the contradictory impact of digital technologies on feminist and queer politics without an understanding of communicative capitalism and neoliberalism, in which they operate. The book then was motivated by a need to move beyond simplistic celebrations of a ‘digital feminism’, but also a need to offer visibility to some different stories and cases.

What specific social change issues are addressed in the book?

Although this is a book about feminist and queer activism in a time of ubiquitous digital networks, and its clear focus is gender and sexual equality, my interest is wider, with intersecting social justice issues. In many cases discussed in the chapters of the book, I examine affective and embodied labour both in relation to activist media practices in social networking platforms and in relation to digital media practices more generally, such as those that result from the increased expectations of visibility for teenage girls, trans and queer youth, and women who use social media in order to claim political voice.

In this book’s prologue you point to some of your past experience working with digital networks. Can you briefly share with us the way this experience with technology and society influenced this book?

My own personal experiences as an early adopter of ICTs have immensely influenced the book. They have informed my understanding of coproduction of technology and social power relations in settings such as the professional digital creative sector, as well as my understanding of media practices and domestication of digital media technologies, and the gendered aspects of how technologies are domesticated.  These matters inform the theoretical framework that I develop, and mainly my theorization of digital networks as constituting conditions of both empowerment and vulnerability.

Can you elaborate a little about empowerment and vulnerability for feminists online, as it is addressed in the book?

Digital technologies introduce new forms of governmentality – we are being surveilled as citizens and monitored as data subjects and consumers through our social media use for example. The question thus is how can feminism and queer activism maintain its political rigour, and offer alternative visions of the world, and articulate political counter-narratives whilst using the same means. My argument and framing of 'biodigital vulnerability' is that feminist and queer activism can make these vulnerabilities public, and transform them into conditions of political empowerment for communities and individuals that have been marginalized or victimized due to sexuality and/or gender.

You discuss this being a time of ‘post’-prefixes, where feminism is considered a completed process. Why do you think it is important to challenge this notion?

It is important to challenge that we have entered an era of ‘post’ feminism or post identity politics, because the aims of these social struggles still are a long way from being met. Uncritical celebrations of hashtag feminism, selfie feminism and other ‘digital feminisms’ may be inspirational and motivate younger people to participate; however, my book shows how the thick bonds and connections that develop through offline and online media activist practices are at odds with the spontaneous and fast-paced world of social media updates. These affective connections - and sometimes disconnections -are essential for the sustainability of feminist networks and for the world-making project of queer politics.

What were some of the highlights and challenges of writing this book?

I wrote the book some years after completing the main part of the ethnographic study, so the biggest challenge was to rethink some of my findings in light of the developments in mobile media and in networking platforms. The most important task for me while writing the book was also to be able to tell a story that remains respectful to the stories that the research participants told.

What is a key point that you hope readers can take away from the text?

The book revisits notions of biopolitics in digital networks, mainly through the work of Hardt and Negri, and Terranova, and the theorization is informed by key concepts in feminist science and technology studies from key theorists, including Barad, Braidotti, Colebrook and Haraway. The triple focus on practices, labour, and imaginaries helps readers understand how activists make claims about gender and sexual equality, and how they negotiate access, connectivity, openness and visibility in digital networks. And although the struggles that I map in the book are very different to one another, their focus of these politics on bodies, gender and sexuality across the themes of bodily autonomy, pornography, reproduction, and queer social life connects them, as they attempt to formulate a critique of neoliberal conditions. A key point then that I hope readers will take away from the text is how feminism and queer politics are enacted through these media practices, digital labour, and technological imaginaries.


Dr Aristea Fotopoulou's work has been positively received by various academics including Nick Couldry from the London School of Economics and Political Science. We will be interested to see more of it in the future.    

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