The words you use to reference that fish matter.
The words you use to reference that fish matter.

This is just a very, very quick post, as I am presently in the thick of #ir14—the 14th Annual Conference of the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR). It’s my first time at IR, and so far I’m really enjoying it. The keynote, preconference workshops, plenaries, and sessions I’ve attended have been great, and the hashtag-stream quality is high (there are some talented livetweeters here, and plenty of hashtag socialization too). Since it’s not a disciplinary conference, everyone is here because they really want to be here—which you can feel in the general atmosphere, and which makes such a difference. From my barely-informed new member perspective, it really does seem as though AoIR has managed to roll a thought-provoking academic conference and a fun reunion party into one four-day long event (which, as a Theorizing the Web committee member, is obviously a project near and dear to my heart).

TL;DR: #ir14, I love you. And I’m bringing attention to the following critique not to be a jerk, but because I think you’re great and I know you—we—can do better. 

When I picked up my conference badge yesterday during the break between preconference workshops, there were two things I noticed about it. The first was that it came pre-printed with my Twitter handle—yay! I love when conferences do that (even if I had to edit mine, because I registered for #ir14 before I changed my Twitter username). The second was that there was a sticker on it, a little cartoon fish. “What’s the sticker for?” I asked the volunteers at the registration table. One of them speculated that it had something to do with meal preferences for the closing banquet (perhaps the fish’s greenness indicated that I’m vegetarian?), and the other said the meaning of the stickers would be explained later. Okay, that’s cool—I like fish.

That afternoon, someone in my second preconference workshop (who is not a first-time attendee) speculated that the stickers would have something to do with some kind of “forced socialization”—though she wasn’t sure what. Some of us joked about different ways to hack the exercise, whatever it might turn out to be.

That's (one of) my fish.
That’s (one of) my fish.

We got our answers in the announcements before Gabriella Coleman’s (awesome) keynote. Somewhere in the crowd at #ir14, each of us would find three others with identical creature stickers on their nametags. In order to encourage conference attendees to mix, mingle, and meet each other, the first set of four to find each other and present themselves to the organizers would be awarded drink tickets as a prize. I’m sure to some people, this was unbearably cheesy and dorky—but as a brand new member, I appreciated the effort to encourage contact between veteran members having a long-awaited reunion moment and less senior members hoping to make new connections. I also appreciated what a silly sticker game signaled (to me) about the overall culture of #ir14: that we are here to be smart, but not to take ourselves Too Seriously; that I should relax, because this is supposed to be fun. Don’t worry about keeping up your perfect professional façade, kid; look! Researchers you admire are marked with cartoon creatures and hunting for drink tickets. (It seemed perfectly in character for a conference that, as it turns out, has a tradition of post-reception karaoke. No, really.)

If I was into the idea of the game, though, why was I feeling so uneasy in the moments after the stickers’ purpose had been revealed? It wasn’t the game, but how the game was explained—specifically, the moment in which we were told to look at our nametags and find the stickers:

“That animal is your spirit animal.”

Screeeeeeeeeeeech, went the vinyl record in my head.

A lot of the room was laughing, but I felt distinctly uncomfortable; I’d been under the impression that “spirit animal” isn’t a term to toss around lightly. Sure, I’ve long seen it used in dumb Internet quizzes and on sarcastic bumper stickers and in flippant everyday speech, but the “spirit animal” concept also holds significant meaning for some Native American cultures and for shamanic religions.  The theme of #ir14 is “Resistance + Appropriation”; shouldn’t we maybe not further the appropriation of marginalized groups’ cultures by appropriating parts of those cultures ourselves?


Unfortunately, the vast majority of attendees tweeting on the #ir14 hashtag took up the term uncritically. “My spirit animal is ________, anyone else?” tweets filled my conference timeline, even throughout the keynote speech. Full disclosure: my own response wasn’t much better; rather than speak up about why using “spirit animal” for this game wasn’t a great idea, I simply used different language to ask around for other green cartoon fishes. I saw exactly one tweet that contested these uses of “spirit animal,” which I’ve pasted in above. (Note: there may have been other tweets highlighting this issue that I missed while livetweeting the keynote; I ran a few searches, but I know Twitter’s search functionality isn’t perfect.)


By the time I got on the wireless at the plenaries this morning, however, the issue had been raised again—this time by two of my Cyborgology colleagues who, though not at #ir14 in person, had been following the conference hashtag and wondered what was going on with use of the term “spirit animal.” I was relieved to see my friends chiming in, and to see the subsequent conversation persist a while on the hashtag: Ok, maybe now we here at #ir14 would return to the issue. The hashtag conversation was taking place during the “Race, Gender, and Information Technologies” plenary; surely there was no way our collective appropriation of “spirit animal” would go unaddressed.

It’s gone almost entirely unaddressed.

I did see a few attendees acknowledge that “spirit animal” had not been an appropriate choice of words; later in the day, one attendee tweeted a link to a good explanation of why “spirit animal” was not the term we should be using to reference our funny nametag-dwelling sticker creatures. But…so far, that’s been it. And to be honest, that saddens me.

It’s tempting to say that maybe this was just a slip, that perhaps the organizer who explained the game unintentionally chose a less-than-appropriate term in the moment of making the announcement (perhaps under the pressure of public speaking); still, that isn’t what it sounded like. And what’s more troubling than one announcement is the fact that so many conference attendees adopted the appropriative language and reproduced it, without stopping to think about the ramifications of doing so. Although I’m thankful that no one has spoken up on the hashtag to defend the use of “spirit animal” at #ir14, I’m also saddened that no one has stepped up to apologize for using it, or to ask people to use a different term.

Say what you will about name badge sticker networking games; to me, the game is quirky and silly in a way that fits with the overall character and culture of #ir14. But choosing the term “spirit animal” to describe the sticker creatures on our name badges was insensitive and inappropriate, and particularly unfortunate given the conference theme. That usage was definitely an act of appropriation, and there has been some initial resistance; I’m still waiting to see what happens next.

AoIR, I have faith in you. We’ve spent the day rejoicing in the gender equity of the #ir14 speaker lineup, and in women’s strong intellectual presence within AoIR generally; we expressed our gratitude and appreciation for a plenary that so explicitly addressed both race and racism online. The social-justice acumen here is obviously well above average. So can we maybe stop and reflect a little about the language we’ve been using for the last ~28 hours? I know the theme is “resistance + appropriation,” but let’s not delve into that by making our conference a case study. I know we can do better.