Order of Multitudes

Crafting Feminist Multitudes: Hashtags, Slogans and Communal Writing in Mexico

Ever Osorio is a PhD candidate in the Program in American Studies and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Yale University and will began a predoctoral position at the MIT School of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences in 2022-23. Her dissertation analyzes feminist movements against authoritarianism in Mexico in the 21st century through the fragmentary writing that characterizes digital media and the contemporary public sphere.

During the second decade of the 21st century dozens of protests, rallies and riots have taken place across Mexico as a response to the alarming number of feminicides and cases of sexual assault and gender violence in the country. I refer to this social movement as the Violet Spring, not only because many protesters have branded this activism as such, but also because it began to take shape during the spring of 2016 when thousands of women wearing violet clothes took the streets of Mexico City. The question of how these movements were configured is the central matter of my dissertation. With the support of the Sawyer Seminar seed grant I was able to pursue this question by visiting Mexico to perform interviews with participants of the protests and cultural actors, creating data sets drawn from Twitter and learning digital humanities skills.

My research is based on the radical proposition that communal writing is quintessential to the formation of multitudes. This means that citizens’ writing, through hashtags and slogans, both in banners and in digital media, are fundamental to the creation of social movements such as the Violet Spring. This insight was nurtured by a question that the Sawyer Seminar seed grant foregrounds, which is: how to order multitudes? Are hashtags a possible category for organizing and accessing them? My answer is yes. Hashtags are in this way not corporate slogans, but forms of communal writing that reject authorship because they become accessible through the tag and not the user name. These hashtags are used to invite others to write and join a struggle for rights which have been denied to the particular group that is writing. The existence of thousands of texts which are posted online and in in-person protests, which are indexed through hashtags, points to the formation of a political multitude: a great number of people assembling to claim a right.

With the support of the Sawyer Seminar seed grant I was able to download the tweets indexed with the hashtags that were central to the organization of feminist rallies and protests from 2016 to 2021. I began my work with the text Mi primer acoso which translates as my first harassment, which began in April of 2016 as a powerful online campaign that preceded a national protest against machista violence in Mexico. Through this hashtag, more than a thousand users revealed their experiences of sexual assault. I have done a close reading of these tweets, a form of micro-writing, to study how the historical experience of this mislabeled personal event was being elaborated as a public political position against the state. Although it is well known in feminist scholarship that the “personal is political,” more analysis is required regarding how the process of claiming a political subjectivity from an experience of injury takes place in our transmedial era, in which digital experience is co-constitutive of a political position. It is in this process that I identify the formation of a feminist multitude.

A similar process took place through the text si me matan that translates as if they kill me, which was first written by a journalist as a response to the criminalization of a feminicide victim on the May 4, 2017. Lesvy Berlin Rivera Osorio, a 22 year-old woman, appeared lifeless next to a phone booth in the National University of Mexico City. Instead of committing to due process, the General Attorney of the city began a thread of tweets informing the public that her death was being investigated as suicide. The thread stated that Lesvy’s mother and boyfriend had confirmed that she had not been a student at the university since 2014, and that she had been drinking and doing drugs the night of her death. News outlets replicated this information, implicitly blaming Lesvy for her murder. The feminist response to the state and the media establishment was to multitudinously post in the form of tweets what would be said of them if they were killed, aiming to reveal how criminalization and victim blaming happens. This effort led to a rally at the University and three days after Lesvy’s death, the crime was prosecuted as a feminicide, and public apologies were given to Lesvy’s mother from the attorney’s offices.

During my research, while trying to access all the tweets that were publicly shared, I realized how valuable this ephemeral archive is. It is not only a textual representation of a given moment in history but also a means to retrieve a history of both feminism and of how authoritarianism pervades in nominally democratic regimes. For this reason, it is necessary to encourage institutions to provide students and librarian with technical skills to access such fugacious archives. This data, these writings, are not open to all and are difficult to access. Twitter permits and coding skills are necessary to retrieve these intimate yet public forms of communal writing. I was surprised by how difficult it is to have full access to this archive, which only materializes to the researcher who frames it. It is not like a box in which you will find all the documents signed by a president in a given year. The researcher is always a curator, but this role is even more pronounced with digital writing. This experience leads to a provisional conclusion. Hashtags, as forms of communal writing are useful tools to organize knowledge as well as political multitudes. Yet, these tags do not follow the kind of order that appears in the arbitrary seriality of the alphabet. For this reason, the role of the scholar as curator is crucial becomes more crucial than ever. On the other hand, because these archives belong to a corporation, they are in constant danger of disappearing., With archives becoming increasing ephemeral, it is imperative for historians and critics of the present to gain the skills to preserve the words that shape the feelings and politics of the 21st century.