Definitions of community within Oceanic Indigenous societies traditionally are dictated by hierarchies built upon kinship and assigned tribal roles that have served for thousands of years. Communication protocols within Oceanic Indigenous cultures are deeply founded in understanding and enforcing these roles. Lori Kendall (2011, p 311) defines the intention of community as evoking “empathy, affection, support, interdependence, consensus, shared values and proximity.” The inception of social media, a comparatively new means of communication, has disrupted the functional value of these roles in self-governance, subsequently fracturing and multiplying Indigenous expressions of community and kinship (Brison 2017). Revealing pre-existing desires to expand beyond the constraints of traditional definitions of community and relationship, as suggested by Brison (2017). The emergence and growth of cancel culture in recent years can leave many feeling disconnected and shamed (Lumby, 2010) as Indigenous peoples struggle to navigate translating tribal identification (and by extension, ‘authentication’) in response to collapsed context online. However, can disconnecting some parts of the community re-enforce it? Rob Henderson (2020) suggests that in fact, cancel culture may demonstrate a commitment to the community in the online world, as “expressing anger at someone who commits a moral infraction demonstrates loyalty to a group, uniting against a perpetrator demonstrates loyalty to the group’s values.” If this is the case, who and what is Indigenous authority on social media? Although social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram are important for Oceanic Indigenous people to connect, archive and share ontologies, the collapse of contexts can fragment traditional expressions of community and kinship and disrupt hierarchical authority.
Oceanic Indigenous peoples use social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram to connect, archive and share ontologies.
The Chamorro (Indigenous people of Guåhan, a territory of the United States located in the Mariana Islands) have looked to social media as an alternative to oral storytelling and exchange of intergenerational knowledge, driven by the fear of losing knowledge to urbanisation and globalisation (Nicolas-Rocca and Parrish Jr, 2013). Nicolas-Rocca & Parrisha Jr (2013) found that of 128 Chamorros that responded to their online survey, 74.8% believed that Chamorro culture is at risk of extinction. Participants consistently expressed the desire to reflect on their social media profiles what they value as Chamorro – cultural way of life, language and food/recipes (Nicolas-Rocca & Parrisha Jr, 2013, p.g 14). The shifting to demonstrating rather than embodying cultural practice on social media as a response to migratory patterns of Chamorro youth to urban areas reflects that cultural knowledge relies on the interconnectedness of language, culture and land. As it is common for Oceanic peoples to favour making decisions that benefit the collective rather than the individual, most Indigenous knowledges persist through the minds and practices of living communities rather than individuals (Ngulube, 2002).
In another part of the Ocean, iTaukei (Indigenous Fijians) have shown tendencies to use social media as a way to extend existing relations and create new ones where traditional protocols would not historically allow. Brison (2017, p 210) observed that the influence of relatives migrating to urban areas or overseas for economic advantage relaxed the enforcing of traditional hierarchies in social settings. Brison goes further to suggest that Facebook facilitates the growing desire to seek opportunities and support from relatives moving up in economic class and that the prioritising of economic contribution by family members is overtaking the roles held by traditional knowledge and elder authority. In Fiji, kinship structures founded on the principles of loloma (love), veidokai (respect), veivakarokorokotaki (mutual respect), and veivakabauti (trust) lead face to face communication protocols. Unaisi Nabobo-Baba (2008) denoted research as an act of knowledge-gathering, making a case for the extraction of pieces of knowledge from iTaukei (Indigenous Fijians) be reframed as a process of exchange and mutual gifting.
Nabobo-Baba’s work to build the Vanua Research Framework carefully incorporates “Indigenous cultural values, protocols, knowledge processes and philosophies, especially those related to knowledge access, legitimation, processes of ethics, indigenous Fijian sanctions and clan ‘limits or boundaries” (2008, p 144). When considering how rigorous communication protocols in live interaction between iTaukei must be, we begin to understand how difficult (and for some, undesirable) it is to translate protocols and intangible cultural property into ‘collapsed contexts’ on social media. Context collapse refers to how people, information, and norms from one context seep into the bounds of another (boyd, 2002, 2008; Marwick & boyd, 2011; Meyrowitz, 1985; Wesch, 2009 as cited in Davis & Jurgenson, 2018 pg. 477).
“The Indigenous Twittersphere” as referred to by Sweet, M., et al, (2013, p 104) encompasses the broad scope of intentions to which various Indigenous communities and users from across the globe engage with Twitter. Many utilise Twitter as a micro-blogging platform to “publish, and distribute text, graphics, photographs, film and links to websites and resources.” (p 105) IndigenousX (shorthand for Indigenous Excellence) was founded by Gamilaroi man Luke Pearson in 2012 as a “social media space for proud and active Indigenous people from different walks of life to tell their own stories in their own words.” (Sweet, 2012 as cited by Sweet, M., et al., (2013, p 105). Since its inception, IndigenousX has grown to have one of the most massive online followings on the Indigenous Twittersphere. As of April 26 2020, @IndigenousX had 54.4k followers, and it is official company twitter account @IndigenousXLtd had 38k followers. In contrast, their Instagram account @IndigenousX had 8, 454 followers and their Facebook account had 17, 902 followers as of April 26 2020. Carlson and Frazer observed (as cited by Dreher, T., et al., 2016, p 29) that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are over-represented as users on Facebook in Australia, with 73% of the population engaging as active users as opposed to 62% of the general population.
This highlights that the difference in followings across social media platforms is not necessarily a reflection on the quality of content but suggests that the micro-blogging form of Twitter offers a more recognisable branding of short-form responsive and journalistic-style storytelling for IndigenousX followers to engage with. Each week on IndigenousX a different Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander individual or organisation is invited to host the twitter account, speaking to their work, offering insights into the diversity (and universality) of lived experiences for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. The participatory and communal nature of IndigenousX re-inforces the value of reciprocation and self-determination when representing Indigenous perspectives on social. This is a display of what Alex, W., et al. (2017, p 2) refer to as “Reterritorialising Social Media”. Another name given by O’Carroll 2012 (as cited by Alex, W., et al. (2017, p 1) when referring to how Māori (Indigenous people of Aotearoa) use social media to connect and share information and causes ignored by mainstream media is “the virtual marae” (a communal meeting ground). All encompassing the struggle by Oceanic Indigenous people to “Indigenise” media through creating digital communal spaces of connectivity and counter representation through information exchange.
Navigating online tribal identification and authentication can create shame and disconnection
Indigenous users generate content for visible and imagined audiences alike. The re-branding of ‘friends’ on Facebook and’ followers’ on Instagram tends to elicit negative feelings towards self-representation; a result of hyperconscious self-reflection observing the posts of strangers (Keep & Amon, 2017). Recent studies make a strong case for the role of narcissism in social media networks. Subsequently, there is an adoption of ‘self-enhancement’ strategies by public-facing accounts. The delineation of private vs. public profiles plays a vital role Muscanell and Guadagno, 2012 (as cited by Keep & Amon, 2017), argue that social network users that join with the intent of establishing personal belonging are more interested in maintaining existing personal relationships. Moon et al. (2016) found in a recent study of 212 Instagram users in Korea that there was a correlation between hours spent on Instagram and narcissism. Suggesting that public social network accounts are more likely to foster individualism and narcissism than private accounts.
Many from Oceanic Indigenous communities engage with social media to archive ancestral knowledge, such as Chamorro (Nicolas-Rocca & Parrish Jr, 2013), meaning that functionally these accounts must remain publically accessible, able to communicate on-demand and present updates and content frequently. However, if we are to take into account the analysis of Moon et al. the core essence of public-facing institutional accounts on platforms requires such a high level of online engagement that it can foster and encourage narcissism, the antithesis to Indigenous expressions of what builds authentic community.
Integrating the real world with the online world does not come without issues, as Bronwyn Lumby (2010) discovered in her survey of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) engagement with Facebook. Affirmation of identity repeatedly surfaced as a point of tension between participants and their’ friends’. Lumby surveyed twenty-six university students [and alumni] who maintain Indigenous profiles on Facebook (p 70). Similarly to Chamorro in Nicolas Rocca & Parrish Jr’s study, ATSI participants echoed sentiments of joining the platform out of the desire to share stories through imagery or ritual and information about kin (colloquially known as mob). For those displaced from Country (tribal lands) and mob by urbanisation or seeking further higher education, Facebook is a platform where Indigeneity can be displayed and enacted but also repudiated (Lumby, 2010, p 73). The performance of Indigeneity in the cyber world requires the constant affirmation of individual understanding of collective knowledges, outlined by participants as “types of language, membership of organisations, participation in certain causes, the sending and receipt of recognisable Indigenous iconography, imagery, the posting of political statements and the knowledge of particular community organisations, structures and practices…” (Lumby 2010, p 71).
Context collapse between these protocols and social media interactions can fragment traditional expressions of community and kinship
Whereas in ‘offline’ communal settings, people are held accountable to visible audiences, the imagined audience steps into consciousness confronting users with a multiplicity of responses that are difficult to manage in the same way as ‘offline’ (boyd & Marwick, 2010). The communal policing of “authentic” expression of Indigeneity is both a glue bonding communal ideologies of cultural maintenance and separative through marginalising members who misrepresent themselves against these ideologies.
An extension of this communal policing is colloqually referred to as cancel culture. Although the original meaning refers to the ‘cancelling’ of celebrities or public figures with controversial opinions, it is common for people to use the term to refer to anyone projecting disagreeable opinions loosely. Within the online Indigenous community, members who project ideaologies that align with colonial stereotypes of Indigenous people and agendas that actively deconstruct Indigenous sovereignty are generally considered a one way ticket to being cancelled. Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, a prominent politician and Warlpiri and Celtic woman was at the center of online controversy in late 2019 when she ignored a statement issued by nine Aboriginal organisations in Coffs Harbour and led by Gumbaynggirr women stating that she was not welcome on Gumbaynggirr country. This was a result of her public stances on multiple issues regarding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sovereignty, including campaigning against changes to Australia Day (believing there are other issues Aborignial people need ro focus on) and dismissing the signifance of Welcome to Country rituals (a custom officiated by elders or members of Aboriginal tribes to welcome visitors onto their tribal lands). Instead she rejected the public statement and referred to it as “cultural bullying” and continued with her event. The #JacintaPrice hashtag on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram display repetitive language referring to Jacinta as ‘offensive’ and a ‘traitor’, that ‘panders to white privilege’ and correlating hashtags such as #NotOurLeader, #ShutUpJacinta and #JacintaPriceDoesNotSpeakForMe. For Jacinta, there are multiple context’s collapsing into and weaving through the online marginalisation as the authority she bows to (and leads with) clash. Her identities as a Warlpiri woman denotes an ancestral and cultural obligation to abide by land lore first, which works in opposition to her position as a representative of the crown which denotes she is obliged to lead through colonial law.
Despite the marginalisation of the individual, Rob Henderson (2020) suggests that in fact, cancel culture may demonstrate a commitment to the community in the online world, as “expressing anger at someone who commits a moral infraction demonstrates loyalty to a group, uniting against a perpetrator demonstrates loyalty to the group’s values.” Unwritten obligations within social media to choose a side can simultaneously fragment and re-inforce Indigenous expressions of community online.
Further, traditional communication protocols govern offline community interactions
Speaking to the fluidity of social kinship, Mcnamara and Henrich (2017) believe the psychology of kinship across human societies regularly co-opts sentiments geared toward genetic relatives and extends them to unrelated strangers.” This extension can be seen through social media connectivity, affording users to forge collegiate bonds through archiving, and sharing Oceanic Indigenous ontologies. Kinship is not only genealogical but also psychological. Where traditional contexts historically prioritised genealogical kin, social media becomes a conduit for non-genetic ties to be favoured (McNamara & Henrich, 2016). For those disconnected from genetic kin, connectivity interweaves with “virtual community”; commonality founded in sociology and philosophy. Community, (Feenberg & Bakardjeva, 2004, as cited by Kendall, 2011) has five main attributes:” 1) identification with symbols and ritual practices; 2) acceptance of common rules; 3) mutual aid; 4) mutual respect, and 5) authentic communication.”
These attributes are not overly dissimilar to traditional Fijian Vanua principles; however, authentic communication is difficult to quantify in virtual communities. Perception is not the same as reality (Lotto, 2017 as cited by Draaisma, 2017), as neuroscientist Lotto believes the information we receive through our eyes is small contrary to popular belief – a small 10%, compared to 90% that comes from other parts of the brain. Social media networks are highly dependent on flattened visual perception of written text, audio, and visual content to communicate meaning. As visual information makes up a small percentage of our perception, there leaves much room for miscommunication and misinterpretation within virtual communities. Stories that would be otherwise accompanied by storytelling flags such as Indigenous sign language, facial gestures, sonic underscoring, vocal intonation, proximity and physical environment become flattened in the 2D translation of community and knowledges.
Despite this, Oceanic Indigenous communities work to integrate new and traditional ontologies
The malleability of the term community indicates that it may be neither useful nor desirable when referring to Indigenous networks in social media. Wellman, 1979 (as cited by Kendall, 2011, p 313) speaks to the concern of the fate of communities, identifying three main points of tension: “community lost,” “community saved” and “community liberated”. There is pressure for Oceanic Indigenous peoples to be active mediators of knowledge, sharing their culture on social media and using it to facilitate meaningful bonds both within genealogical kin and across pan-Indigenous networks. Arguably all three points of tension identified by Wellman, are at always at any given time embodied by iTaukei, Chamorro and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander engagement with social media networks.
Apprehension to self identify as Indigenous that was expressed by students and alumni in Bronwyn Lumby’s survey were founded in fear of being ‘called out’ and cancelled. As Robert Henderson (2020) pointed out, the prevalence of cancel culture on networks such as Twitter, suggest that this can create new branches of community, that are bound by the declaration commitment to protecting particular community values and ideologies. Brison (2017) observed context collapse during her time staying with an iTaukei family over nine years. She suggested that the influence of Facebook encouraged the household matriarch to engage in more Western European and cosmopolitan styles of socialising (drinking alcohol instead of yaqona – a traditional drink, also known as kava). Against the backdrop of Fiji’s patrilineal kinship structures, Brison’s observations noted this as an expression of female liberation and self-determination. A small but notable act of defiance against expectations of socio-cultural behaviour and authority enabled by social media.
The fragmentation of traditional Oceanic Indigenous expressions of kinship and community can be a source of concern for many, particularly (but not restricted to) older generations. It is undeniable that Indigenous people must be “in the race to win it”, and placing importance on digital literacy to share ‘at risk’ knowledges are worthy investments. As social media networks develop, and more data is collected and dispersed on Oceanic Indigenous peoples value must be placed on integrating the way traditional communication into the way people connect, archive and share across and within their online communities. The socio-cultural politics and implications of replicating Indigenous knowledge and authority protocols online will not cease to be without issue, but the rapid evolution of technology and social media is a strong case for why it is important to integrate cross-cultural and intergenerational digital literacy and communication protocols.
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