“#OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair” (Ashagre). This tweet came from April Reign, the managing editor of BroadwayBlack.com, in response to the 2015 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominations, in which all 20 of those nominated for the lead or supporting acting categories were white. The hashtag became even more discussed in 2016 when the nominations for these categories were again filled with all white actors, prompting an even greater response from the public (Ryan). It is because of the existence of the network society made possible by informationalism that #OscarsSoWhite was able to gain the traction that it did in the digital space, leading to tangible effects in the physical space.
Thus, it rings in a new era where virtually any common user of social media with an important message and supporters of that message can begin to bring attention to inequalities in society, demand change, and have reactionary change begin to form. #OscarsSoWhite is able to do this because the power of the network society enables the cooperation between the effective utilization of social media to mobilize mass media and the ability of minority voices to uproot yet also take advantage of the institutionalized socio-economic hierarchies to force change to occur within both the Academy and the Oscars.
The Link Between Informationalism and the Network Society
The existence of the network society is the vehicle of change within the discussion about the lack of diversity in the Academy as an institution and its nomination results. Because networks and the network society have empowered social media, mass media, and instability within institutions that make up the Academy as an institution itself, “Informationalism, Networks, and the Network Society” by Manuel Castells serves as a guide in understanding how and why #OscarsSoWhite has caused such a widespread movement within these structures.
In “Informationalism, Networks, and the Network Society: A Theoretical Blueprint,” Manuel Castells discusses that the network society, or a network of global and technologically-powered social relationships provided by informationalism, has influenced virtually every aspect of society, including its culture, its multimedia system, its communication, and its power structure. Because of the “emergence of a network of interacting cultures, unified by the common belief in the use value of sharing” (Castells 67) made possible through globalization and technological innovation, news has the potential to be spread quickly and widely.
This network society operates no differently to bring attention to #OscarsSoWhite and diffuse the implications of the movement within media, communication, and social power structures. Networks of different cultures and groups sharing similarities has allowed for #OscarsSoWhite to spread not only within groups of hashtag creator Reign’s network, but also beyond it to different networks that related to it or saw the essential truths it conveyed. Thus, the power of the network society has allowed mass media and social media to draw greater attention to the deficiencies within the Academy and Oscars to uproot the institutionalized norms causing the inherent lack of diversity in the Academy and Hollywood alike to create instability within which critical change is demanded and created.
A Process of Domination and Counter-Domination
The interaction between #OscarsSoWhite on social and mass media and institutionalized norms of Hollywood and The Academy are further fostered by the network society as “the network society shifts its emphasis…to the emergence of [an] interdependent social structure with its processes of domination and counter-domination” (Castells 66). Castells’s idea of the network society becoming a give and take between various hierarchies and networks is further explained in #OscarsSoWhite with its social media communications acting as both dependent upon and independent of the existing institutionalized norms. They reflect the change in the way #OscarsSoWhite is received and reported especially within mass media communications.
Therefore, the relationship between media channels in the network society is closely related to the institutionalization of norms such as power structures and the white standard in understanding the change in media and communication reflected in #OscarsSoWhite.
Through the network society, #OscarsSoWhite rebels against the institutionalization of power structures to create popularity and attention for the movement. One such institution of power employs “whiteness as the invisible standard” as stated by Vinay Harpalani in “Ambiguity, Ambivalence, and Awakening.” By this, Harpalani acknowledges the institutionalization of white culture, practices, and ideals as the norm within American society. These long-standing norms of whiteness are so deep-rooted that everything else is compared against this white standard.
Despite the image of America as “the melting pot,” what seems to be “normal” in American culture is predominantly what is normal within white culture. One main criticism of the Oscars has arisen from the idea of the white standard. The Academy is 94% Caucasian and 77% male, which is reflective of the demographics of “film studio heads who are 94% white and 100% male” (Ryan).
It is likely that the lack of diversity within The Academy and Hollywood has driven a bias that has created sets of all white nominees two years in a row in 2015 and 2016. In this case, it seems that whiteness is still the standard in that the mostly white male Academy is influenced by perceptual and racial biases because of their position and experiences in a society that grants many privileges to white males. However, whiteness is the opposite of an “invisible” standard in this case. Because the Oscars and Academy are reflections of Hollywood, whiteness, though not explicitly stated, is quite apparent through the type of people that make up the powerful positions in the industry.
It is because of this apparent white institutionalization in Hollywood and The Academy, thereby filtering into the Oscars, that there is a structure to both utilize and push back against. Although she did not initially know the widespread effects her hashtag would bring, in creating #OscarsSoWhite, Reign, a black woman, employs the effects of social media to push back against “whiteness as the invisible standard.” The first way that #OscarsSoWhite does this is by pointing out that there is the normalization of whiteness to begin with that systematically excludes diversity.
Despite white people, specifically white males, at the top of the social hierarchy with the most power to determine other aspects within American society, there has undoubtedly been a shift towards inclusion and a multicultural society as stated by “The End of White America” Hua Hsu. Although there is not an upheaval of white people’s social status to create a real threat to their power as Hsu states in his analysis, he acknowledges the greater power, voice, and influence that minorities have been able to take advantage of in recent years. #OscarsSoWhite is an example of this. The hashtag reflects a movement of minority networks becoming mobilized on Twitter and other social media platforms to voice their concerns against the white Oscars with the hopes that their voices can amount to some sort of change.
Using Social Media to Push Back Against the Socio-Economic Hierarchy
The second way that #OscarsSoWhite pushes back against is the socio-economic hierarchy is by enabling ordinary social media users to take power back from the wealthy and powerful institutions, individuals, and entities, such as The Academy, white wealthy celebrities participating in Hollywood, and traditional mass media. #OscarsSoWhite creates a platform for which at least 200,000 people (Keunning) that used the hashtag on Twitter alone and many more that liked, retweeted, reposted, and commented on those threads across various social media platforms were able to discuss the implications of the lack of diversity present in the Oscars.
Although Hollywood and other general social figures still hold a lot of power in influencing what the public pays attention to, contrastingly #OscarsSoWhite allows the public to bring news of the lack of diversity to the attention of the famous individuals who have, in turn, used their own power and standing to influence even more ordinary individuals and other famous individuals, thus bringing widespread attention and magnitude to the cause within their own networks and the networks of countless others. Although the networks of important individuals are much larger and powerful than that of ordinary citizens, the fact that ordinary individuals’ networks were able to garner the amount of attention it did for #OscarsSoWhite and creating a system where their meaningful contributions to the conversations alone drove the attention of the hashtag must not be overlooked.
Because of the genuine intentions of social media users, more power is taken back for ordinary people to control which aspects of the conversation they wish to advance to celebrities, prominent social figures, and mass media. The change in media and communication in the case of #OscarsSoWhite reflects this reversal of events and power. Furthermore, the resistance against normal socio-economic hierarchies occurs as #OscarsSoWhite moves beyond the colored and minority social networks, such as Reign’s own network, to infiltrate the white and wealthy networks, such as that of Matt Damon and Will Smith.
Traditional socio-economic hierarchies create clear divides between groups of people of greater and lesser power. The network society still creates divides between groups of various power and social standing. However, it is through greater technology that networks have become more interdependent. The socio-economic divides exist but also blend with other groups to create greater understanding and both reinforce and dismantle the social hierarchy. Individuals are involved in many networks and have a greater capacity to spread more knowledge and information from network to network.
It is likely that word of mouth and interpersonal networks and connections of individuals in both Reign’s network and celebrity following networks or even more general connections of network to create publicity for #OscarsSoWhite existed. The network society enabled by social media in this case has created ease with which Hollywood stars and other important social figures, such as politicians, can adopt the hashtag, its cause, and drastically enlarge the magnitude of the movement.
While #OscarsSoWhite fights back against the social hierarchical institutions that give power to the white standard, it also employs the social hierarchy, in which famous individuals and mass media hold greater amounts of power, to continue the momentum of the movement. In the network society, #OscarsSoWhite was brought to the attention of very different networks of ordinary people and prompted both a conversation on change and change itself within those networks, especially through its empowerment of social media against institutionalized power structures to the movement’s advantage.
While #OscarsSoWhite was able to create waves among such an unchanging and traditional institution such as the Academy because of its ability to take advantage of changes in media and communication, the movement is still but one discussion amidst many in which racial inequality has been institutionalized because the normalization of whiteness. Without celebrities, who are familiar with the ways of The Academy and Hollywood, to take up #OscarsSoWhite and the movement including boycotting and discussing its implications and reality on other platforms, it is likely that nothing significant in terms of voting structure or demographics would change.
This was seen in 2015 when the hashtag first arose, but did not garner as much attention as it did in 2016. It was when #OscarsSoWhite started receiving much attention from celebrities that the waves made on social media were made so prominent that it amounted to The Academy deciding to pose reforms in 2016. #OscarsSoWhite on all platforms involving high power people became a much bigger and powerful movement that could instigate reform than the smaller #OscarsSoWhite movement involving ordinary social media users. Thus, the inclusion and empowerment of #OscarsSoWhite because of publicity made by the network society has both defied and empowered the socio-economic hierarchies in society.
Similarly, significant, tangible effects of the network society are further enabled by, first and foremost, social media and then mass media coupled with the influence of famous individuals of whom mass media focuses its coverage of #OscarsSoWhite on. The integration of social media and networks can be defined by Castells as a “public space” (46) “with increasing interactivity” (45) where “the more communication [that] happens in the electronic space, …the more people assert their own culture and experience” (46) to create “a shared cultural practice that allows individuals and social groups to live together” (46).
Uniting Different Networks Together Via Micro-Activism
In the network society, individuals within their own networks share similar experiences, but most likely share these experiences with many other separate networks. In this case, social media has brought these different networks together to unite them under #OscarsSoWhite and have added value to the movement because of the different experiences and values that the hashtag came to embody. “Political Facebook Groups” by Jose Marichal integrates the idea of social media with the network society in his analysis of Facebook groups that have arisen to bring attention to specific political causes in the digital space without creating meaningful change in a physical space.
These groups give way to what Marichal describes as micro-activism, a “performance” that has its downsides, but overall has greater power to integrate these new ideas into people’s lives through conversation and digital gathering. Unlike many movements that have become popular and widespread on Facebook, #OscarsSoWhite originated on Twitter. Although there is a potential and even likelihood for micro-activism on Twitter, with this particular situation, ordinary people have little power over the physical effects of changing the internal structure of the Academy and its outcome on the Oscars. Rather, ordinary people hold power in making the hashtag trend to garner attention to the lack of diversity within the Oscar programming.
In this case, individuals on social media depend on powerful and famous individuals within the institutionalized social hierarchies to take action in representation of not only their own interests, but also Twitter users’ interests who represent the interests of the greater population in their interactions with mass media channels. However, #OscarsSoWhite marks a new era in media and communications where social media dictates the content covered in mass media, rather than social media being dependent on mass media to stimulate discussion, as Twitter discussions became the topics of interviews on television, newspapers, and the red-carpet. People have always been prompted to think for themselves, but with social media during #OscarsSoWhite, common individuals empowered themselves by being their own direct representatives to those in their networks and those in different networks who are connected to people in shared networks, rather than rely on mass media to convey an interpreted version of what the people believe.
This is especially important with #OscarsSoWhite because as stated in “Understanding a Diverse America’s Critical Information Needs” by Mark Lloyd, et. al, race is a social construct, race and the inequalities that result from it must still be addressed to more effectively combat and remedy the injustices. Because mass media is an institution itself that has been influenced by the white standard, social media is especially important in #OscarsSoWhite because it is comprised of such different networks with more equal power within the common individuals that, while it is still influenced by whiteness as everything is, the white standard is much less influential in this structure. Thus, social media is especially important in bringing about increased understanding and access to a variety of ideas, perceptions, and cultures as stated by “Atheisms Unbound” by Christopher Smith and Richard Cimino. Smith and Cimino propose that the internet has the power to allow new cultures to arise and be fostered into powerful movements, as such has occurred with #OscarsSoWhite.
Because mass media is so influenced by institutionalized white norms, social media brings out an understanding and outlook of the Oscars that had not been pointed out before and is powerful in its ability to influence the mindset of powerful individuals who are white themselves or are heavily participatory in the white culture or Hollywood culture. Furthermore, many of the famous individuals that joined #OscarsSoWhite are white themselves and most likely would not have recognized the racial disparities within the Oscar nomination results because of their privilege and experience in society.
As in “Prologue to a Farce,” Mark Lloyd explains that existing communication and media channels are heavily controlled by the wealthy in powerful positions because of the institutionalization of power and wealth in virtually every aspect of society. Because race is a core component of #OscarsSoWhite, the ability of social media to be a tool for which the minority and marginalized have an equal opportunity and equal outcome for their words to gain traction compared to mass media represents a significant change in media and communication that is comparatively more unique of this hashtag. Thus, the influence of individuals using #OscarsSoWhite have had so much influence on those in higher places of power within the social hierarchy that they have been moved to action.
Common individuals teamed with famous individuals have forced The Academy to recognize its failure to be representative of the greater society and allow a space for greater opportunity for all races (Kaufman). The Academy has since made reforms to their voting demographics; they hope to include many more female and minority members and ensure that their members are active within the industry in order to maintain their voting privileges (Keegan).
Celebrities of every race spoke out and even boycotted the Oscars because of the effects of #OscarsSoWhite. Although mass media is intended to be representative of the interests and concerns of the people, it is likely that it also fed off of the capitalist gains it could receive by covering a movement so widely publicized on social media and so hot a topic amongst A-list celebrities, politicians, and other important figures in the spotlight.
As demonstrated by “How Much is my Browsing Worth to You?” by Gabriel Kahn, each click or view brings revenue to the communication channel the consumer utilizes. Thus it is undoubtedly possible and probably true that the change in mass media to be so heavily influenced by #OscarsSoWhite is reliant upon the revenue it could generate by employing celebrities like Matt Damon, Paris Barclay, and Steven Spielberg to discuss their thoughts on the implications of #OscarsSoWhite. #OscarsSoWhite has also notably attracted the attention of President Barack Obama, at the time, and congressmen including Representatives Hank Johnson and John Conyers Jr. (Kaufman). Although they did not themselves use the hashtag, their knowledge of the disparities within the Oscars was most likely heavily dependent on the trending hashtag’s publicity.
Not only did #OscarsSoWhite have politicians talking about something that resulted from hashtag activism, these politicians were able to mobilize #OscarsSoWhite from the digital space to the physical space in addressing the disparities in equality of opportunity and outcome to press reporters (“Oscar Nominees”) and in a written letter to The Academy’s President, Cheryl Boone Isaacs to continue meaningful efforts of inclusion (Kaufman), respectively. With these politicians discussing #OscarsSoWhite, a whole new audience is brought into the mix and informed about the inequalities within The Academy and Hollywood.
Celebrity attention, fan followings, politician attention, and politically aware citizens all add to the value of capitalism for mass media channels and corporations such that the increased capitalization of mass media works in the movement’s favor, as it brings necessary attention to the movement. It also forces celebrities to have thought about the implications of the Hollywood they are participants of in anticipation of mass media channels asking them about the movement in interviews. Likewise, it creates a positive feedback loop in which celebrities use social media as a reference to gain ideas, build on existing ideas, or develop their own and give these ideas back to mass media channels, such that mass media is even more reflective of the ideas and beliefs of ordinary people as it was before. Thus, in this practice of involving celebrities and high power people, social media is able to strip down the effect of institutionalized whiteness and power structures within mass media to transform this platform that works within a system of capitalism to a platform that is capitalistic in a way that is increasingly representative of society’s individuals, whether it knows it or not.
Waves of Change
The effects of #OscarsSoWhite were able to create waves of change within media and communication in the network society because of the systematic support of this social structure on the dynamic evolution and changes within the collaboration of social media, mass media, and institutionalized norms and instability. Change within the Academy is a stepping stone, but without systematic changes in the way Hollywood operates and the type of diverse content we demand of Hollywood and other institutions in American culture, the greater efforts and intentions of #OscarsSoWhite will have not been fully achieved.
About Kristy Tran
Kristy is a student at the University of Southern California studying Business Administration and Communication Policy and Law. Born and raised in the tech-centric San Francisco Bay Area, she enjoys learning about how companies utilize data and technology to tackle industry challenges, spark innovation, and transform the world.
Originally published at colibridigitalmarketing.com on April 10, 2018.