Chapter 1 – Publics and the Eventalisation of the Internet

The research material for this thesis draws on a large record of online content through which ‘gamers’, video game journalists and feminist commentators attempted to renegotiate definitions of the ‘gamer’ identity through the Gamergate controversy. This cultural archive begins with 18 opinion pieces that were published during the first week of the ‘death of the gamer’ media event (which took place from August 28 to September 3, 2014) and 7,055 comments that were generated by these articles (which included text, photos and videos). It also includes the more gestural, platform-based modes of participation associated with these comments (such as variations of ‘liking’ or ‘up voting’, as well as ‘retweeting’ and ‘reblogging’ on Twitter and Tumblr, respectively), plus some other news articles, blogs, tweets and trending YouTube videos that were referenced in the opinion pieces. 

There is a difficulty with representing the events and publics that exist in this research material however, as the ‘truths’ that construct these elements are highly contested. Furthermore, as a large-scale media event affecting a range of publics, Gamergate cannot be easily reduced and generalised to any singular incident or group. This is because Gamergate’s publics are not homogenous in their social and cultural compositions; rather, they are self-organised through discourse, and they are incoherently structured with a nuanced sense of purpose throughout. As this thesis begins by discussing its methodology then, the reader should note that Gamergate has been approached with respect to three key themes:

  • Commentary: Gamergate is a series of contestations between members of antagonistic publics over the discursive terrain regarding what the event is ‘about’. 
  • Event Media: Gamergate is a series of events comprising a larger media event. Each event consists of its own composition of antagonisms expressed through a shifting array of ‘statements’; these serve as the conditions of possibility for expression in participatory publics (Foucault, 1969, pp. 95–96). Gamergate’s overarching discourse is thus a complexly interwoven set of different threads and is best narrated and periodised into phases. 
  • Circulation: Gamergate is a number of exchanges involving peripheral stakeholders in video game culture and masculine popular culture.

1.1    The ‘self-organisation’ of publics and counterpublics

Particularly noteworthy in the first of these perspectives are Gamergate’s ‘antagonistic publics’ – that is, the ‘hardcore gamer’ public and feminist counterpublic that are often cited as being at opposite ends of the Gamergate controversy (Baio, 2014). As Michael Warner and others have studied, publics – in contrast to audiences – are attentive, participatory and autonomous (Warner, 2002, pp. 49–50; Fraser, 1990, pp. 68–69; Eley, 1994, pp. 1). They are products of discourse (rather than of external frameworks such as governments, corporations and other institutions), and they are shaped by a multiplicity of texts (Ricoeur, 1991, pp. 135–136; Warner, 2002, pp. 50). Warner (2002, pp. 50–51, 62) argues that publics ‘self-organise’ whenever a text addresses consumers through the circulation of discourse – or in other words, when texts flow through a sphere of communication. On the other hand, counterpublics ‘self-organise’ by the same means, but also through their inherent purpose of reforming the discourse that has been circulated by the dominant public (Fraser, 1990, pp. 67). In this case, Gamergate’s publics have been addressed through video games, online message boards, blogs, news stories and social networks. 

Hauser describes the circulation of discourse as having a dynamic character (Hauser, 1998, pp. 100). Given the ad hoc nature with which online publics materialise and transform, this is a useful way of approaching the ‘self-organisation’ of Gamergate’s antagonistic social formations. ‘Self-organisation’ occurs when texts address consumers (or ‘strangers’) by articulating their subjectivities into discourse (Fraser, 1990, pp. 68–69). Correspondingly, consumers become participants of publics when they actively uptake a position in their ‘discursive spaces’ (Warner, 2002, pp. 60–61). Here, participants can contribute to the replication and rearticulation of discourse (Loehwing & Motter, 2009, pp. 227). For the ‘hardcore gamer’ public, this is a space in which participants can negotiate the meanings associated with their identities and fan cultures. Furthermore, Warner (2002, pp. 51) describes the process of ‘self-organisation’ as reflexive; publics emerge through the circulation of discourse, but they also enable discourse. In other words, publics are implied within texts as unrealised social entities and they are intrinsically linked to discourse, but they can only mobilise through discursive action (including through platform-based exchanges, gestures and ‘statements’).

When readers circulate texts, they are voluntarily participating and ‘sharing’ in discourse (Jenkins, et al, 2013, pp. 2). Participation occurs at the moment when an individual circulates or gives any degree of attention to discourse – an activity known as ‘active uptake’ (Warner, 2002, pp. 60). According to Warner (2002, pp. 61), attention is “the only entry condition demanded by a public”, and in fact, all that allows a public to exist – when all attention ceases, so too does the public (Boyd, 2008, pp. 32; Hill, 1995, pp. 197). Moreover, the attention that a public gives to discourse is determined by the temporality of its circulation (Warner, 2002, pp. 68). This means that if the circulation of discourse is disseminative, continuous and prompt, the public’s activity will endure, but if discourse is circulated slowly and disjointedly, the public will become inattentive. Thus, if publics persist through their attention to texts (and therefore discourse), then reflexively, discourse is prolonged through an expanding constellation of textual citations (Warner, 2002, pp. 68). From the archivist’s perspective therefore, publics are temporal spaces in which discourses are facilitated and eventually exhausted as new discourses emerge to replace them.

Warner also discusses the rules that constitute stranger-sociability and the sense of belonging to a public. This sense of belonging is built into the character of publics and their implications for shaping identity (Warner, 2002, pp. 56). It is thus fundamental to analysing contestations of the ‘gamer’ identity in Gamergate and the ‘death of the gamer’ media event. While discussing the sense of belonging to a public, Warner (2002, pp. 76) writes that as the circulation of discourse extends into a landscape of contrasting discourses, some friction is likely to occur. Specifically, this tension arises when the characterisation of a public does not completely resonate with the subjectivities held by a subsection of its addressees. The discursive politics that follow from such tensions can lead to the emergence of what Warner identifies as ‘counterpublics’ (2002, pp. 80). These special kinds of publics possess all of the aforementioned properties of publics, including ‘self-organisation’ and the circulation of discourse (Warner, 2002, pp. 81). But they differ in a number of key ways – namely through their selection of participants, as well as their tendency to advocate for discursive reform (Warner, 2002, pp. 85–86). 

Counterpublics are strictly comprised of counter-hegemonic identities (Salter, 2013, pp. 225). By engaging in discourse, these marginalised bodies aspire to challenge and interact with the dominant public (Warner, 2002, pp. 86). They do so by entering into conflict with these publics, as well as the norms that define their cultures (Warner, 2002, pp. 80). Nancy Fraser (who Warner credits as the first to define counterpublics within public sphere theory) argues that by establishing an alternative public, dominated groups may circulate counterdiscourses (Fraser, 1990, pp. 67). Through this ‘self-organisation’ process, counterpublics create a discursive arena in which their members can negotiate their identities, interests and needs. In this sense, counterpublics differ from publics in that their circulation seeks to transform discourse, rather than simply replicate it (Warner, 2002, pp. 88). Counterpublics are further explored in Chapter 4, based on an analysis of the antagonisms that constitute the Gamergate media event.

1.2    Analysing online publics

A useful way to approach conflicts between publics and counterpublics is in terms of their contested communicative actions. In the case of Gamergate’s publics, cultural critics generally contend that ‘hardcore gamers’ are suspicious of feminists, feeling they are actively working to sabotage the video games industry (Chess & Shaw, 2015, pp. 210; Harwell, 2014). On the other hand, the feminist counterpublic regard themselves as advocates for the equitable treatment and representation of minorities in the video games medium, community and industry (notably women, but also people of colour, homosexuals and transgender people) (Wu, 2014; Ebbitt, 2015; Ogrizek, 2015). During the ‘death of the gamer’, Gamergate’s feminist counterpublics intended to renegotiate definitions of the ‘gamer’ identity, but ‘hardcore gamers’ were opposed to this.

Given the immense volume of media content required to represent antagonistic publics interacting through discourse, the scale of this internet archive is significant. Other research projects that have looked at emergent online publics have primarily focused on the composition of memberships (Bruns & Burgess, 2011, pp. 1), the geographies of participation (Ausserhofer & Maireder, 2013, pp. 291; Palen & Vieweg, 2008, pp. 117) and the network-based character of the social relations between participants (Langlois, et al, 2009, pp. 415). The lack of a focus on discourse in previous research is not surprising, however. Although computational methods allow researchers to approach the scientific ideal of being able to count and account for all actions in online publics, when a substantial amount of research material is involved – as is often the case when analysing the circulation and transformation of discourse – achieving this scientific ideal becomes difficult (Lewis, et al, 2013, pp. 23).

To accurately collect, code and manage this amount of research material, this thesis implemented what are known as ‘big data’ research methods. Big data is a digital humanities research method designed to aggregate significant amounts of information, by exploiting the code-based context within which information circulates (Boyd & Crawford, 2012, pp. 663). These methods sometimes rely on sophisticated software algorithms to aggregate, examine and compare large datasets. The work of technology journalist and commentator Andy Baio (2014) is an example of a ‘big data’ approach to analysing the Gamergate event. Baio examined the composition of Gamergate’s networked public sphere by capturing every tweet that mentioned the #Gamergate hashtag between October 21 and 23, 2014. Among the 316,669 tweets and retweets by 36,630 users, Baio found that there were two contrasting communities participating in Gamergate. He also deduced that there was very little overlap between these two groups – where one cluster focused on retweeting feminist commentators such as Anita Sarkeesian, the other engaged with online personalities with predispositions against these feminists. Furthermore, Baio found that there was a very small quantity of participants who had retweeted critics from both camps – showing that 90–95% of users had instead adopted a stance either for or against Gamergate. 

Baio’s main conclusion is that Gamergate is organised around the antagonism between ‘hardcore gamer’ and feminist publics (2014). By visualising the composition of Gamergate’s public sphere through tweet data, Baio’s research presents evidence of two conflicting discourses in Gamergate’s public sphere: the ‘Gamergate’ public (which comprises traditional, ‘hardcore’ video game players, or ‘gamers’) and its feminist counterpublic, which is often rearticulated by the Gamergate public as ‘social justice warriors’ (SJWs). This is a pejorative term used in online discourse, and it is typically assigned to advocates for minorities or subjugated social groups who – according to crowdsourced, online glossary, Urban Dictionary (boiledchicken, 2012) – are only acting to improve their own reputation within online social platforms. 

One of the applications of big data methods is to facilitate discourse analysis – particularly with respect to territorialising online social spaces and their communities (Marwick, 2014, pp. 117). By aggregating and coding the patterns and themes that emerge through the language, platform-based gestures and behaviours of online communities, this study has used some methods associated with ‘big data’ to map publics based on the circulation of discourse. This approach involved using a ‘scraper’ or ‘harvester’ software application known as OutWit Hub to take advantage of the HTML and JavaScript on which websites and internet platforms run and to then gather and analytically code information into a database. This research used this ‘scraping’ technique to aggregate user comments from online news articles and social media platforms. Depending on how websites were programmed, this data became readily available by accessing the website’s application programming interface (or API). The data collected included commenters’ online aliases, the timestamps on their comments, the comments themselves and if applicable, the number of ‘likes’ (or similar). 

In this research, the number of ‘likes’ received by a comment or post will be used as a barometer of the collective appreciation of that contribution. In the context of social media platforms, ‘likes’ possess a phatic functionality; the number of ‘likes’ on a comment can be indicative of that comment’s reception to its online community (Kietzmann, et al, 2011, pp. 247). While such gestural interactions may infer a sense of belonging and stranger-sociability in online publics (Seidman, 2013, pp. 402), it is unreasonable to ascribe a singular meaning to the arbitrary act of ‘liking’ a comment, when such meanings become invisible in networked publics (Baym & Boyd, 2012, pp. 322). As such, online gestures are not strictly part of the textual component of discourses, but they are important to take into account when thinking about how publics are articulated. 

1.3    Analysing the circulation of discourse

In order to mobilise a systematic discourse analysis, this research project was influenced by what Michel Foucault described as his method of ‘eventalisation’. In only a few interviews and lectures, Foucault (1981, pp. 76) described the eventalisation methodology as part of his study of the relationships between power, knowledge and social control in a given society. Foucault was interested in the ways certain regimes of practice had emerged, and under what conditions they were able to permeate and transform history (Foucault, 1981, pp. 75). In this context, Foucault describes regimes of practice as possessing implications for jurisdictional rules and distinctions between what people accept as true and false within a domain of knowledge (Foucault, 1981, pp. 82). In other words, Foucault’s approach is one of connecting a multiplicity of historical events through language and practices – that is, of ‘archiving’ discourse. With this apparatus, Foucault assembled archives for a variety of discursive formations, including penal imprisonment, sexuality, and mental illness.

Foucault described eventalisation as a method for exposing ‘self-evidences’ throughout history. Foucault defines ‘self-evidences’ as “historical constants” (Foucault, 1981, pp. 76); they are behavioural traits that have become staples in human anthropology. ‘Self-evidences’ indicate the structural conditions of possibility for discourse and exist as an assumed ‘obviousness’ in discourse. For example, it was not always obvious that a lawbreaker should be imprisoned (Foucault, 1981, pp. 76), as it was not always obvious that the ‘gamer’ is a cultural identity possessing shared definitions. As discursive and non-discursive processes consistently and perpetually mould ‘self-evidences’, they ultimately come to be regarded as accepted truths within discourse (Deleuze, 1988, pp. 31). In other words, self-evidences justify regimes of practice, and they lend power to the jurisdictions that enact those schemas (Foucault, 1980, pp. 112–113).

Of key importance to the argument presented here is that eventalisation enables historians to precisely and rigorously unpack ‘self-evidences’ by analysing the discursive objects that embody them (including signs, institutions, and practices). Specifically, Foucault describes this method as one that traces the transformation of discourse and their theoretical elements from one state to another (Foucault, 1998, pp. 283). This process allows historians to explore how discourses have changed and affected change throughout the course of history. Among the multiplicities that are susceptible to these changes are institutions, social relations, economic conditions, political relations, technologies, subcultures and so on (Foucault, 1998, pp. 284). By investigating history in this way – as a discursive totality – historians are able to construct a cohesive historical narrative that illustrates the continuous evolution of discourse (Bratich, et al, 2003; Binkley, 2011). 

Foucault analysed discourse events in terms of what he called the distribution of ‘statements’ (Foucault, 1998, pp. 286). ‘Statements’ are organisations or bodies of discourse that obey theoretical perspectives and their epistemological domains (Deleuze, 1988, pp. 5; Foucault, 1998, pp. 284). ‘Statements’ are constructed through language; but as well as representing the context in which language is uttered, ‘statements’ are also functional – they possess particular effects (McHoul & Grace, 1993, pp. 35–38). As such, ‘statements’ are not necessarily sentences, nor are they strictly built with syntax and grammar. For example, Deleuze discusses the layout of the French keyboard, which is organised by the first five letters that appear in its first row of alphabetical keys: AZERT. This is a ‘statement’ of the alphabetical order that informs the act of typing (Deleuze, 1988, pp. 2). Within an internet archive however, ‘statements’ may take the form of hashtags such as #Gamergate, which functions to organise Twitter’s discussions and publics involved in the Gamergate controversy.

When compiling an archive, a relationship emerges between the distribution of ‘statements’ – Foucault called this distribution a “discursive event” (Foucault, 1969, pp. 30) – and the location of ‘self-evidences’, which serve as the conditions of possibility for the circulation of discourse (Foucault, 1981, pp. 76). In other words, there is a relationship between what can be said and what is said in discourse. Therefore, the distribution of ‘statements’ allow historians to conduct discourse analyses such as eventalisation, and to ultimately reveal where ‘self-evidences’ exist in discourse (Foucault 1998, pp. 286). Fundamentally then, ‘statements’ are useful for building knowledge of discourses.

In this research project, eventalisation was mobilised through an analysis of the comment threads that were generated by the ‘death of the gamer’ opinion pieces. In this context, a comment thread is defined as any standalone comment that generated at least one direct reply to that comment. These comment threads are key sites of understanding the way the Gamergate event developed for two reasons. First, they represent locations where the ‘statements’ of Gamergate’s discourses circulated. Second, they embody the politics that function within its networked public sphere. These discursive politics are rhetorical modes of communication employed by the actors within those spheres (Castells, 2000, pp. 507; Hauser, 1998, pp. 89–90; Loehwing & Motter, 2009, pp. 221). In other words, discursive politics structure publics as sites of conflict between disparate cultural formations. Although theories of discursive politics have been applied predominantly in traditional modes of communication, social scientists have shown that they are applicable in computer-mediated communication as well. Based on Habermas’ frameworks for communicative action and speech communities, Charles Ess (1996, pp. 216) argues that online spaces can also function as arenas of public opinion, and that they are capable of mobilising and restructuring discourse. This echoes claims by Bruns and Burgess (2011, pp. 8; Bruns, et al, 2010, pp. 9) that social networks and particularly hashtags can facilitate the circulation of discourse and the self-organisation of publics.

1.4    Limitations

There are some limitations associated with these methods and methodologies however, particularly with combining Foucault’s archaeological techniques and big data research methods. Notably, these joint methods present the possibility of bias, which may occur as a result of scraping incomplete information, by identifying patterns where a causal link does not exist, by ascribing subjective meanings to large amounts of quantitative data, or by cross-referencing multiple big datasets (Bollier, 2010, pp. 13; Boyd & Crawford, 2012, pp. 664). Altogether, these limitations are linked to a greater concern that is often voiced when analysing data through big data methods – that there is a risk of removing messages from their original context (Boyd & Crawford, 2012, pp. 670). The benefit of incorporating Foucault’s eventalisation methodology then, is that it complements this research project’s objective of examining constructions of the ‘gamer’ identity in situ, so as to build an accurate representation of ‘gamer’ discourse and its participatory publics.

Questions also arise regarding privacy and ownership of information when using big data research methods. Especially when handling online comments, Boyd & Crawford (2012, pp. 671–672) encourage researchers to consider the ethics involved in aggregating and scrutinising public opinions without the expressed permission or awareness of their authors. As the magnitude of anonymous participants presents a difficulty with respect to seeking their permissions, this research project has instead opted to demonstrate constant vigilance regarding the privacy, beliefs and safety of its research subjects.

There are also significant empirical implications for researching, defining and mapping public opinion. In particular, social scientists have experienced difficulties in developing effective research methods to empirically, unbiasedly and repeatedly define and study publics (Basten, 2010, pp. 73; Warner, 2002, pp. 53). This is also true for this research project. By investigating only one week of the online discourse surrounding the ‘death of the gamer’, this research has illuminated but a small cross-section of the dialogue between Gamergate’s antagonistic publics. While this has resulted in an incomplete depiction of ‘gamer’ discourse, it would be impractical to represent Gamergate in its totality, as this would demand a significant amount of analysis, including hundreds of thousands of comments and tweets. 

Another difficulty that arises here is with respect to the nature of publics and counterpublics as notional, rather than empirical social entities (Warner, 2002, pp. 51). Publics are often misunderstood as taking action or making decisions through mere conversation, when they are actually being mobilised through the circulation of discourse (Warner, 2002, pp. 68). The danger of this is that it risks painting public dialogue as rational and summarisable, rather than as a product of discourse (Hauser, 1998, pp. 85; Warner, 2002, pp. 83). Through this misguidance, a social scientist attempting to identify a public’s common interests, desires and demands could be insensitive to the notion that publics determine these issues themselves, with reference to discourse (Warner, 2002, pp. 53–54). Practically, such a methodological approach will only serve to misrepresent the public sphere under scrutiny. The empirical issue here, as Fraser communicates it, is that ‘the public’ will be qualified as a “single, overarching public sphere”, rather than as a multiplicity of smaller, nuanced publics (Fraser, 1990, pp. 66). Thus, this research has approached its analysis of Gamergate’s publics by identifying the ‘self-evidences’ that have been circulated and challenged through discourse. Moreover, this research has been perceptive to the fact that ‘self-evidences’ structure public discourse, they inform the sense of belonging to a public and they determine the rules by which publics govern themselves.