Leslie Jones, GR’19, was an early tech-native who can’t recall when she was not fascinated by social media and the web. She calls herself a “dyed-in-the-wool internet geek” who had daily internet access and used social media (as it existed in the early 2000s) from the age of twelve. She had a Geocities webpage, dabbled in HTML and CSS, and was comforted by the soothing sound of the AOL dial-up.
Jones was thrilled (and surprised) to learn in her undergraduate years that she could study the web and social media academically. Today, as a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology and a Price Mellon Doctoral Fellow in the Price Lab for Digital Humanities, Jones is exploring the intellectual contributions of Black feminists on Facebook and Twitter.
Jones became interested in the intersection of race, gender, and social media early in her graduate career at Penn when she wrote a case study about a website called PeopleofWalmart.com (the paper is currently under review for publication) that puts a spotlight on Internet trolling and harassment.
“PeopleofWalmart.com is a horrible website where people upload pictures of those they've seen out shopping, usually in Walmart,” says Jones. “The idea is to make fun of people who are primarily on the margins of society or who the contributors consider trashy or lower-class. For example, the website is full of people on scooters, and the putative assumption is that they use these scooters because they are ‘fat.’ There’s a real element of dehumanization … and if that person is also a woman and Black, the language becomes full-on vitriol.”
It was her discovery of the elevated nature of the harassment towards women and people of color that planted the seeds for her doctoral dissertation focused on race and gender: a research project that “maps the intellectual contributions of Black feminists using social media and intends to challenge the dominant notions of where knowledge is produced and by whom.”
In her dissertation, Jones uses the concept of the “salon” to create an intellectual genealogy of the different spaces where knowledge has been created. In early 18th-century France, a salon was a gathering of prominent intellectuals, writers, and artists at the home of a society host, usually a woman. Recent Black feminist scholarship has described the beauty salon (launched in the American Jim Crow-era) as a community-based epicenter for Black females to gather, discuss politics, and initiate social activism. Jones’ research focuses on a newer type of intellectual gathering place for women, specifically Black feminist women: Facebook and Twitter.
Through her work, Jones gives a nod to the female-led French salon movement, but disentangles from the elite nature of the European salon. Jones is interested in the voices of everyday Black women and emphasizes that she is not focused on the social media platforms of academics.
Although her dissertation is grounded in black feminist theory, critical race theory, and racial formation in sociology, she is specifically interested in Black feminist women who use social media as a “public platform for social critique about race and gender who are unaffiliated with a university and unaffiliated with institutions that have a legitimizing presence in the U.S. consciousness.” She is particularly concerned with Black women who are marginalized in the general sense, but also marginalized within the corridors of intellectual production, often located within the “ivory tower” of academia. She says these newer types of intellectual gatherings, therefore, may be less like a salon and more like a “marketplace of ideas” that builds upon the subversive nature of beauty shop politics.
She explains, “Black female influencers like @FeminstaJones on Twitter cannot readily point to letters after their name or a university affiliation to give their arguments weight. They have legitimization through their own experiences. So, discursively, a lot of what is happening on social media is challenging the notion that you have to have an institutional affiliation to make important critiques of social life.”
@FeministaJones has approximately 151,000 Twitter followers, and influencers like her are convening conversations on topics such as black girlhood’s mutual construction by and influence on the education system, domestic abuse in the NFL, sexual assault, and state surveillance—all intellectual contributions that Jones says the field of sociology ignores at its peril.
“For sociology to advance in the field of intersectionality and in understanding interrelated systems of oppression, it must listen to the theoretical formations of people who are positioned at these axes and doing this work—regardless of whether or not they're in the academy or publishing journal articles—because otherwise, we're not only missing out on a lot of important intellectual production, but also losing the pulse of the types of conversations that are happening in the public sphere,” Jones says. “That could compromise whether we're relevant as a discipline in the future.”
Jones is slated to complete her Ph.D. in 2018 and is seeking a post-doctoral placement. She hopes to continue her work on social media and conduct a study on technological surveillance innovations.