IDENTITY of the 99%: How the activists represent themselves through Tumblr


IDENTITY of the 99%: How the activists represent themselves through Tumblr

Group 14: Garrett King, Lauren Mitchell, Megan Liu, Brannen Jennings, & Yiyan Luo

1. Introduction

Activists involved in the Occupy Movement claim to be part of the 99%, whereas the other 1 percent of the nation represents the wealth and power domination that the 99 percent lacks.  Our group thought it would be interesting to study the identities of the activists who are involved in this movement and how the average activist defines him/herself therefore we did.  Some of these activists post their statements and stories on a Tumblr blog claiming their identity in the 99 percent.  For our group’s purpose, it is important to analyze how the participants represent themselves so we can better understand their participation in this movement and the Occupy Movement as a whole.  We wanted to examine their identities by looking at their representation of their age, income, education, employment and emotion.  Our goal was to find patterns or trends among those who are pushing force behind this social/political movement.  The ways in which the activists represent themselves go hand in hand with the words they choose to use and how they construct them in their discourse.  The words the activists choose to use can also influence the media and persuade or mislead the public from their prior beliefs of equality and equal opportunity in our country.  Activists of the Occupy Movement are representing themselves as hopeless and helpless through the language they use regarding education, finances, and employment.

This analysis will include a discussion of our research methods, including a description of our discourse genre and corpus.  Following the discussion of methods we employed, we will review key findings regarding the participants’ discussion of education, age, employment, finances, and emotion and how they used it to form their identities as helpless.

2. Methods

As discourse analysts, we used a mixture of Critical Discourse Analysis, Corpus Linguistic, and Semiotics methodology to analyze the way in which the participants identify themselves.  “Many CL methods are quantitative and/or make use of statistical tests, which are performed by computer software. However, most CL methods require considerable human input, which often includes qualitative analysis (such as examining concordance lines)” (Baker et al, p. 274).  We examined the syntagmatic, or grammatical, and paradigmatic, or lexical, aspects of linguistic choice among the activists.  After collecting a corpus of texts, we used computer software Key Word in Context (KWIC) to quantitatively analyze the texts for keyword frequencies, concordance lines, and collocation.  According to Adolphs, key words “are often identified intuitively as prime candidates that may facilitate the process of uncovering a certain type of ideology in language” (p. 84).  These KWIC methods allow us to analyze the context around specific keywords.  After our quantitative analysis, we analyzed our findings and produced a descriptive word analysis of how our individual word (each group member chose a keyword) was used in our corpus.  Diving deeper into qualitative analysis, we then used the software platform to perform two rounds of coding our corpus.  When coding, “in the initial stages it should be done as inclusively as possible, so that all borderline instances can be counted in rather than out” (Gill, p. 180).  The first round was an inductive process of open coding to find general patterns in our corpus and the second round was a deductive process of structured coding that allowed us to narrow our analysis to focus on five codes: education, employment, money, age, and emotion.  Upon coding the entire corpus for these five patterns, we used a process of hermeneutics to further qualitatively interpret our findings.

The discourse genre we focused on was the Tumblr blog from September 2011 to May 2012.  Tumblr is a website/blog that has facilitated over 21 billion postings made and created by individual people of the public.  Their goal is to create the perfect platform for self- expression, so that people can share their opinions and have a place where it is seen or heard.  Tumblr is millions of people sharing the things they do, find, love, think, or create.  The reason why this is an important genre for us to use is because our study is focusing on the perspective of the people who are involved and active in this movement.  Tumblr is a blog that helps us to see messages, text, and pictures directly from the source we are analyzing.  We will be using the letters and pictures submitted and posted by individual activists to see how they identify themselves.  Taking a sample of the postings over the range of time this movement has been occurring is how we will find the demographics and the identity portrayed by the activists in the occupy movement. Within the blog, we selected and transcribed 150 of the images from September 2011 to April 2012 to form our 21,549-word corpus. Each of our group members analyzed 30 of the 150 texts.

3. Analysis

 3.1 Activists take no “real  action” to change their unemployment situation

One of the activists says that “I am 26 years old, I worked since I am 16 and I cannot find full time job. I am the 99% and I want change.” This activist uses the phrase “I want change” instead of “ I want TO change”, which shows s/he is passive that s/he is waiting for others to help him/her. The only action s/he takes is speaking out his/her situation but not willing to change the situation by him/herself. Another example which is related to another keyword our group has: education,

“I finished my college and currently apply to grad school so that I can further my education and hopefully obtain a better paying job…I am the 99% looking for change.”

Many activists on Tumblr are at least high school education level and some of them are even college educated but having no job. They really have the abilities to change their situations. However they choose to speak out their problems and wait for others’ helps

3.2 People age 20-30 are concerned more about their college debt

         Out of all the participants who stated their age in their posted blogs, 21% is under the age of 20, 50% exactly is between ages 20 to 30, 11% is between 30-40 years old, 10% is between the age 40-50, 8% is between 50-60 years old, 1% is over the age of 60. According to the data percentage, most people who participated in the online 99% blog posting are between the ages of 20-30. The reason why half of the participants are between 20-30 is unknown. It might because they have better access of the Internet so that they have more information about this occupy Wall Street protest. It might also because they really are in a economic disadvantages. Each age group associates with education, employment and unemployment, emotion and their debt level in different degrees.
The first pattern we found under this part when relating age together with other factors our group is studying is that people in the age of 20-30 who claimed they are the 99% are heavily in debt from their college student loans. Most of them have college degree. Also, people in this age bracket are just entering the workforce. They have not paid back their student loans yet, and many of the loans are up to 60,000 dollars. It is a burden to people who just entered his work force for couple years. Another reason that they have hard time paying back their debt is that they either have no job after college, or their wage is extremely low that can barely pay their monthly expenses. They mostly blame the economy that responsible for the situation, which they cannot find jobs that they are majored in, or jobs that pay well. Emotions in this age bracket appear mostly positive. They think the economy is going to be better with better system. Yet, there are few outliers who think that his life is not worth living, or scared of the future. It appears that different age groups have different problems to face, but all the problems are overlap with each other. The degree of their concerns is different. People in their 20s concern more about their student loan, leading a heavy debt after graduation. They also concern about their job and how they are going to pay the debts back. People after 30 concern more about their mortgage, their job, their family and their children. The findings support my theses because they prove in words how they describe their life situations are. In conclusion, people who claim they are the 99% are seem to be in financial disadvantages. Most of them have certain degree of education but they cannot get jobs that satisfy their needs. The economy has put them into even worse life condition with no job and income to pay their living expenses.

3.3 Participants use emotive language to describe their circumstance and invoke action from viewers.

Many of the participants use language that refers to fear, and many times it is referring to their living conditions or basic survival needs, they are using very strong and open ended adjectives, like afraid, scared, or tired to get the attention of the reader.  As Fairclough stated, “the whole process of social interaction of which a text is just a part. This process includes in addition to the text the process of production, of which the text is the product, and the process of interpretation, for which the text is a resource. (Fairclough)” (Poole, Article).  The interesting thing about analyzing the discourse this way and using the context is that we as the viewer are the ones who will interpret what they are really trying to say and express.  All of these participants are afraid that no one will help them, they expect for other people to change their situations and circumstances, while they are really the only ones who can truly change

“I am AFRAID.  Even if I live within my means, NOT having: children, buying cars, designer clothes, vacations, fancy gadgets, mortgages, jewelry, or any other non-necessity items, that when I come out of this Education, I will not even have the chance to get a job. I am afraid, that when I can’t afford the non-necessity AND the necessity items….like food, and shelter, that nobody will be there to help me.”

“I’m afraid of the debt I will have in the future, and of the chance that I won’t be able to find a job out of school. I’m afraid that I’ll have to work minimum wage jobs for the rest of my life, even though that’s all I’ve been doing since I was 15 years old. Who’s supposed to help me?”

3.4 Activists define themselves as helpless due to their inability to attend college or to finish college

Many of the activists used the Tumblr blog to express their frustration in their inability to attend college.  They often used their lack of education as a justification for their life circumstances.  It was apparent that many of the Tumblr activists talked about college in relation to being a “dropout.”  Collocation and examining concordance lines were critical tools of analysis behind this finding.  According to Adolphs, collocation “refers to the habitual co-occurrence of words” within a corpus (p. 56).  Collocation is important because “intentionally combining two (or more) lexical items requires the insight that each element makes a separate contribution to the overall meaning and function of the utterance” (Schmid and Handl, p. 126).  When collocating for the node “college,” one of the most common words in proximity was “dropout.”  For example, one activist said, “I am a college dropout…who is all but destroyed by that one mistake.”  Another said, “I attempted to go to college but was forced to drop out due to lack of money and I ended up with a $20,000 loan debt which took me 5 years to pay back and this was community college.”  Through collocation, it was apparent that other negative words surrounded “college” such as “burdened,” “destroyed,” “mistake,” “struggling,” and “terrified.”  These words enhance emotions of pity in the reader, which, therefore, supports their feeling of helplessness.

3.5 Activists represent themselves as in a bad financial situation because of something or someone else.

In analyzing my corpus, through collocation and concordance tables, I noticed a pattern of shifting the blame of a bad financial situation to someone or something else.  Furthermore, they represent themselves as participants that are powerless. To fully understand how they represent themselves as in a poor financial situation I looked at causal semantic relationship that was occurring quite frequently. When they wrote about being in debt or having no money it was always because of school loans or the recession or some other factor. Moreover they represent themselves as the victims instead of ones responsible for their bad situations by being passivated, which simply means they are “the Affected or Beneficiary (loosely. The one affected by processes)” (Fairclaugh Norman, 2003). Here are a few out of many excerpts from my corpus that exemplify this relationship and representation.

“In massive debt because of that once ‘dream degree’”
“debt because of the recession.”
“had issues paying the rent, because his boss was late in paying his wages.”
“because education is the first thing to get cut.”
“because I had been unemployed for over 3 years already and needed the money.”

Collocated by the word debt very often is the word because explaining why they are in debt. The word because occurs 111 times in my corpus of 150 blog posts. Almost every blog post has this causal relationship and in not one instance is the cause because they made a poor decision, it is always the cause of other factors such as the economy, government and or other circumstances requiring loans. Looking at this causal semantic relationship is of value because it gives meaning to the clause. They are in debt or financial downfall for a reason and this causal relationship uncovers that reason. The process by how we create this meaning can be explained by “equivalence and difference – what laclau and Mouffe (1985) identify, with respect to political hegemony, as the simultaneous operation of a ‘logic of difference’ and a ‘logic of equivalence’. These are respectively tendencies towards creating and proliferating differences between objects, entities, groups of people etc. as equivalent to each other.” (Fairclaugh Norman, 2003) This is simply the process our brains go through to make sense of what this relationship means.

3.6 Gaze

Although these activists are representing themselves as helpless, they are doing one thing, and that is posting on tumblr. They do this through the pictures of themselves on tumblr. I noticed a pattern right away of the gaze of the participants in these pictures. “When represented participants look at the viewer, vectors, formed by participants’ eyelines, connect the participants with the viewer. Contact is established, even if it is only on an imaginary level” (Kress Gunther & van Leeuwen Theo, 1996). This is a demand gaze and when that connection is made it requires involvement and demands some from the viewer even if just for a split second. Not only are these participants demanding something from the viewer but also they take it a step further by being within arms reach in the picture. This is within the personal space and therefore it is harder to just turn away from. Not only that but the angle is frontal further requiring involvement. Although they are representing themselves as helpless through their discourse course they are doing something with their images and that is requiring involvement and demanding action from viewers. Below are some of the pictures from our corpus the exemplify this.

4. Conclusion

 Our findings combine to exemplify the helplessness that the 99 percent portrays.  Although their circumstances may in fact be bleak and they feel helpless, their voices can only go so far; action must be taken to combat their circumstances.  Many activists of the movement are using their voices to push for political and social change when they could be making progress through making individual changes and taking action. Activists of the Occupy Movement are representing themselves as hopeless and helpless through the language they use regarding education, finances, and employment.  Overall, most of the participants represent themselves with emotive language to describe their age, education, financial status, and employment situation.


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