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Affect and Social Media conference attracts leading experts

students studying at UEL

Academics examine ideas around selfies, feminist activism, biofeedback and more

Leading thinkers in the burgeoning arena of social media and emotion converged at the University of East London (UEL) this week for the second annual Affect and Social Media conference. 

From machinic intimacy to anxiety disorders among beauty vloggers, the event explored the many ways our feelings become manifest on social media. 

“The symposium brought together a cast of international scholars from cultural studies, psychology, sociology and arts practice to help us better understand the role emotions, feelings and affect play in our everyday interactions with social media,” said UEL’s Dr Tony David Sampson, who organised the conference.

“It opened up a stimulating debate concerning fascinating alternatives to the study of digital culture wherein emotions, feelings and affect are taken seriously rather than merely being regarded as at the margins of academic work.”

Conference participants discussed research and new ideas through the lenses of digital emotion, individuation, experience, emoticons, new materialisms, selfies, biofeedback, feminist activism, media panic, anxiety, therapy, learning, and affective circuits, geographies, new connectivities and contagions.

Dr Alyssa Niccolini, of Columbia University in New York, gave a talk on biofeedback and affective pedagogies related to Spire – an activity tracker similar to the ubiquitous Fitbit. The main purpose of Spire, however, is to reduce users’ tension and stress. 

Spire, which has attracted a number of devoted online testimonials, produces a vibration when a wearer becomes tense. The quiver acts as a reminder for the user to take measures to calm down.

Spire’s other functions include daily reports and encouragement. Many people see the device as a sort of virtual therapist, Dr Niccolini said.

Dr Niccolini said she was interested in further exploring the “machinic intimacy” offered by Spire. 

“Spire touches you and you touch Spire,” she noted. 

Jessica Ringrose, of the University College London Institute of Education, discussed teenaged feminist activism on Twitter. 

Dr Ringrose said her research had shown that Twitter is an essential tool for young girls who want to share and document the policing of their clothing at school. Girls also often begin to think through and respond to the concept of rape culture through their engagement with social media, she said.

Sophie Helen Bishop, a PhD candidate at the University of East London, talked about the prevalence of self-diagnosed anxiety disorders among the UK’s most popular beauty and lifestyle vloggers, including Zoella and Tanya Burr. Ms Bishop wondered why this particular phenomenon remained overwhelmingly female, but noted the benefit of increasing awareness of the disorders among young women.

Dr Anne Vermeulen, of the University of Antwerp, was unable to attend the conference as planned due to the recent terrorist attacks but gave a presentation on Skype. Her talk was on the sharing of happiness, sadness, pride and shame on social media platforms.

Dr Vermeulen said that, despite 24-hour online access to friends and peers, teenagers still usually turned to their parents when they needed emotional support.

“Emotions are still most often shared face-to-face,” she said.

An edited collection from the two Affect and Social Media conferences is currently underway. UEL will host a third conference next year.