Digital Activism and Socially Conscious Online Entrepreneurship Amongst the #WitchesOfInstagram

@witchboston

Photo Credit: (W.I.T.C.H. Boston 2018)


Created by Jaya Singh
for
ANT 486 Special Topics: Socio-Cultural Research Seminar
Digital and Visual Anthropology Lab
Professor Kristin Bright
University of Toronto

Introduction

Several years ago, I came across a vibrant online community of people who identify as witches and use their Instagram profiles to promote their witch-oriented businesses and skill sets. It is through Instagram that these witches perform the unique ability to promote their shared ideologies as activists along with their products and services as online entrepreneurs. While examining the vast diversity of this community, however, I soon recognized a paradoxical trend in how these entrepreneurs were being represented through Instagram. While this community consists of people of various genders/non-genders, sexual orientations, ethnicities, etc., I soon recognized that popular hashtags that represent this community did not adequately represent their diversity; nor did they adequately represent the socially conscious spirit of this community. It is through this digital project that I analyze these concerns, the potential causes for these misrepresentations along with further considerations for future related research.

This digital research project has been cultivated through utilizing discourse analysis and a variety of online ethnographic research methods. While conducting online ethnographic research for this project, I focused primarily on American witch entrepreneurs who use the popular hashtag, #witchesofinstagram, to promote their Instagram posts. I have been closely examining Instagram posts that maintain this hashtag but were not algorithmically selected for display on the #witchesofinstagram hashtag feed. I will further elaborate upon hashtag feeds and their importance to communal representation in the section entitled, “Algorithmic Homogeneity”.

I have also been examining the curation of related Instagram posts that were not featured on the #witchesofinstagram hashtag feed, which led me to analyze the hashtag feeds of other similar popular hashtags such as #witch and #brujasofinstagram—bruja is a Spanish term used to describe mostly female Latin-American witches. I will further examine the mobility of these Instagram posts in “Algorithmic Homogeneity”.

A Brief Historical Overview of Witches in the United States of America

To understand this movement in socially conscious entrepreneurship and community building, it is significant to understand a (very) brief history of where witches have existed throughout history. For the specific purposes of this project, I focus predominantly on parts of Western European as well as the United States of America. As Kristen J. Sollée (2017) notes, witch hunts and witch trials were prevalent throughout parts of Western Europe including the Netherlands and England during the sixteenth century. Trials and hunts were also popular in the United States throughout the seventeenth century, as documented through the infamous Salem Witch Trials of Salem, Massachusetts (2017). People who did not identify as witches were tortured and killed based on a variety of different accusations and causes that ranged from being folk healers to potentially defying societal sexuality norms (2017).

Female midwives were in especially precarious positions since many were tried as witches or were responsible for accusing supposed witches in their communities since they had to prove themselves as devout followers of the Catholic church (Federici 2004; Sollée 2017). What has been especially noted by Silvia Federici (2004) regarding these trials and hunts is that a trend in persecuting an overwhelming number of women as witches correlated with the increased normalization of two predominant capitalistic and patriarchal trends. One trend involved the removal of women from positions of power related to women’s health and well-being since men soon replaced midwives as midwifery became increasingly discredited on a societal level (2004). The second trend that occurred involved unwaged women’s labour becoming more socially expected of women as divides in gendered labour deepened (2004).

These historical points are significant when examining activism amongst contemporary American witch communities since many of these societal issues that impact women’s lives are still prevalent worldwide (Federici 2004; Sollée 2017). For additional information on the recent increase of witches in the United States, the following articles are suggested as supplementary reading.

Suggested Reading

Online Witch Entrepreneurship and Instagram

It is not coincidental that the vocations and positions of current witches often overlap with ones that self-proclaimed witches held throughout history. Entrepreneurial witches are often artists, writers/authors, spiritual healers, advisors, holistic medical practitioners, educators, performers, diviners (for example, Tarot card and rune readers), online shopkeepers and professional spellcasters. Witches can be more than one of these and often are, and this is also not an exhaustive list since witches do not need to conform to specific guidelines to be witches.

Sabrina Scott (@immateriality): Author, Spell Casting Services, Divination Services, Artist

@hoodwitch: Community Builder, Content Creator, Divination Services, eShopkeeper

Mystic Dylan (@mysticdylanofficial): Spell Casting Services, Divination Service

@trapwitch: Social Media Influencer, Spiritual Advisor, Spiritual Healer, Divination Services

Laura Tempest Zakroff (@owlkeyme.arts): Author/Writer, Artist, Performer , Designer

Corinna (@riseupgoodwitch): Herbalist, Online Shopkeeper, Divination Services, Content Creator

Observing these images, it is easy to recognize that the witching community is very diverse. Witches can be of any gender/non-gender, sexual orientation, race, etc., and inclusivity is key to witch activists (Sollée 2017).

It is also important to note that advertising, self-expression and social activism are synonymous with one another for many of these socially conscious entrepreneurs. This is evident through their methods of promotion. When it comes to the promotion of services and products online, witches post a variety of different media through their Instagram profiles with the most popular types of posts being witchcraft-related memes, product images and selfies (as seen in the above selfie posts).

Memes

Memes (seen below) are often shared amongst witches on Instagram to disseminate knowledge and wisdom for a wide range of topics: from spells tips and Tarot card spreads to wellness advice. Memes are also used as a ‘social coagulant’ for the community since they are used to share community-related jokes, short musings and messages pertaining to social activism.

In many ways, these memes act as fluid symbols that maintain older recognizable symbols such as pentacles, sigils, Tarot cards, altar items and images of popular polytheistic deities. This type of symbol making and replicating is reminiscent of David Kertzer’s (1988) observations pertaining to the importance of symbols amongst communities. These recognizable symbols are consistently repurposed and reframed in memes, and they continue to encourage engagement and discourse from the Instagram witch community due to their recognizability (1988). Much like Edgar Gómez Cruz and Helen Thornham’s (2015) observations pertaining to selfies and their inherent embedment in online communicative processes, it is imperative that all Instagram posts including memes are examined not only for their initial content; the mobility (i.e., shareability) of memes along with additional content generated through user engagements are collectively significant parts of online interactions. While I cannot elaborate further on the complex nature of this form of community-oriented discourse within the scope of this project, this is an area of research I intend on providing further focus to in the future. I also state the same in examining the roles of selfies in the digital entrepreneurship since selfies are typically used to provide a notable level of personability and credibility to online businesses in lieu of in-person representation.

Product Photography

This is a small sampling of the product images posted by online witch entrepreneurs through their Instagram profiles. Advertised materials include (but are not limited to) ritual and altar supplies, fashion accessories, books, crystals and artwork. Images of divination tools (e.g. Tarot and oracle cards) along with images of altars are typically used to promote services such as spellcasting and divination readings. It is common to also find witch entrepreneurs posing with their products in selfies along with cross-promoting product images from other Instagram users, which bolsters communal ties.


Witches as Socially Conscious Entrepreneurs

Women along with numerous men and non-binary people who were tried throughout history as witches are recalled when examining the social justice tenets that are key to what Kristen J. Sollée (2017) refers to as “witch feminism”. These tenets include a variety of social causes including the promotion of pro-choice movements, non-binary gender rights, intersectional feminism, sex positivity, sex trade positivity, pleasure positivity, body positivity (which includes the decolonization of mainstream Eurocentric beauty standards), and the elimination of patriarchal limitations that prevent societal equality (2017).

It is apparent through a variety of Instagram posts that witches stand for numerous causes including environmental conservation, Black Lives Matters and decolonization efforts. This intersectionality in social activism is not surprising when considering Trinh T. Minh-Ha’s (1987) observations on the societal roles of contemporary feminism:

Hegemony and racism are, therefore, a pressing feminist issue; 'as usual, the impetus comes from the grassroots, activist women's movement'. Feminism, as Barbara Smith defines it, 'is the political theory and practice that struggles to free all women . . . Anything less than this vision of total freedom is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement' (12).

In its inclusive spirit, the witching community inherently recognizes that obstructive capitalistic and patriarchal infrastructure existing within North American societies cannot be overcome when the population is divided, as noted by Minh-ha (1987).

Social activism-related messages are posted on Instagram profiles alongside product images and other posted media (e.g. selfies, videos, etc.) that entrepreneurial witches use to advertise their products and services. At times, even their products will embody these socially conscious messages (seen below). It is overall evident that when an individual supports witch entrepreneurs through their own purchasing power, they are also supporting that entrepreneur’s causes and activist endeavours.

Symbols associated with contemporary witchcraft including pentagrams, besoms, sage bundles and divination tools like crystal balls and Tarot cards are used in numerous memes and products to signal messages of solidarity; this process is akin to the political symbol creation processes David Kertzer (1988) observed amongst nations and their related institutions. Kertzer (1988) recognized that nations are invisible forces that require symbols and rituals to unite their citizens. Since online communities and digital social activists do not meet in physical spaces regularly or sometimes at all, community symbolism and even hashtags assist in inspiring and sustaining messages of activism.

Sometimes, fashion and make-up are utilized in online witch activism as well (Sollée 2017). While witches are encouraged to wear (or not wear) whatever they please, some witch activists on Instagram purposely wear social markers of epitomized or ‘ultra’ femininity including bold makeup and clothing that is condemned in some American communities for being ‘slutty’ or sexually explicit (2017). In doing this, these witch activists are taking a stand for their views on gender equality, sex-positivity, body-positivity and self-sovereignty.

Although digital activism has been heavily critiqued for its ephemeral nature, as Yarimar Bonilla and Jonathan Rosa (2015) observed in their research on Twitter hashtag activism, digital activism can be a powerful influencer when examining its effects on new and ‘traditional’ news outlets. Political intuitions have been documented for recognizing digital activism movements, and these movements provide a platform to activists who are otherwise unable to protest in-person due to geographical barriers (e.g. the community is widely dispersed) or physical danger (2015).

Sameness

Around the mid-twentieth century was when Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer (1944) publicly critiqued what they termed the “culture industry”* for utilizing mass production and mass dissemination to cultivate a level of “sameness” across art and media. Both scholars posited that art and media were being created and disseminated through the culture industry in manners that prioritized advertising as “its elixir of life” (1944, 68) since the industry has been sustained on corporate advertisement funding. The result of this prioritization of corporate funding, according to both scholars, was a detrimental commoditization of culture that has been widely accepted by members of society at the sacrifice of creating quality art and media that did not possess this critiqued crux of “sameness” that prioritized capital interest (1944). One salient example Adorno and Horkheimer (1944) provided examined how magazine advertisements are prioritized in such a way by magazine publishers that they resemble or are, at times, are superior in aesthetic quality than editorial content. This was hugely problematic to both scholars since they felt that art and media content should not be created in ways that take the creative process away from the people of societies (1944). They also noted that media content and art should not be secondary to capital interest or be created merely as vehicles for corporate advertising campaigns (1944).

With the advent of Web 2.0, which has brought with it social media outlets including Instagram, it is evident that people have more control over advertising their small businesses and creating their own content, as witnessed through famous social media influencers and independent online small business owners. The capitalistic frameworks of North American societies, nevertheless, still appear to point towards Adorno and Horkheimer’s arguments pertaining to advertisement prioritization and “sameness”. Just as Safiya Umoja Noble (2018) observed in her work pertaining to algorithmic biases embedded in Google search results, it is clear that biases in the curation of search results or even Instagram hashtag feeds are consistently repeated through algorithmic-derived biases. As Noble (2018) notes, it is not the algorithms responsibility to change. It is the programmers who are responsible for creating, maintaining and training these algorithms who must recognize the detrimental social repercussions of such biases in order to resolve the related issues at hand.

Moreover, Noble (2018) concluded that the biases she recognized in Google search engine results resulted largely from corporate interest since content from companies who paid for Google advertisements were appearing higher in search engine results. Similarly, in the case of Instagram hashtag feeds, the sameness Adorno and Horkheimer (1944) criticized the “culture industry” for is still prevalent to a large extent and, in part, still due to corporate advertising. In 2018 alone, for example, Instagram was estimated to have grossed $5.48 billion in net advertisement revenue; indicating that corporate advertisement is a substantial revenue stream for Instagram (Condliffe 2018).

* The “culture industry” focused mainly on film, television, radio and magazines in Adorno and Horkheimer’s (1944) essay. They criticized this industry both for “confin[ing] itself to standardization and mass production and sacrific[ing] what once distinguished the logic of the work from that of society” (1944, 42).

Algorithmic Homogeneity

While there have been many scholars and technology journalists who have criticized Instagram for perpetuated a salient level of homogeneity through algorithmic curation, one instance in particular involves an Instagram account called “@insta_repeat”, which posts a series of popular Instagram posts of the same travel destinations from the exact same angles (Shamsian 2018). In some instances, the destinations appear to be different but the landscapes, objects and/or people in the photographs bear specific similarities.

Based on Noble’s (2018) observations on how deep machine-learning algorithms (i.e. artificial intelligence) are able to yield narrow curation results based on narrowly selected training values, I posit that the images showcased through @insta_repeat bare certain similarities that enable Instagram algorithms to verify that they depict what they claim to depict. As a result, they are considered ‘safe’ and ‘ideal’ images to promote across Instagram including through hashtag feeds. The same can be observed in the following screenshots from the Instagram hashtag feed for #witchesofinstagram. It is overall difficult to form concise theories about algorithmic curation since algorithms are proprietary information. Nevertheless, it is still possible to analyze the curation patterns of their output.

Mobile phone screenshots from the hashtag feed for the Instagram hashtag #witchesofinstagram. Screenshots created by author.

These screenshots of the #witchesofinstagram hashtag feed were taken over several days. It is quite noticeable that the diversity observed amongst the American witch community is not adequately represented in the selfies that were algorithmically selected for curation. Moreover, activism-related posts along with certain ritual-related images including altar images from brujas are sparse, albeit a few divination-related product shots.

Below are screenshots of Instagram posts that possess the #witchesofinstagram hashtag but were not selected for #witchesofinstagram hashtag feed curation.

Left images depict an Instagram post that maintains the #witchesofinstagram hashtag. It was recently posted at the time these screenshots were taken. The third image depicts that this Instagram post was selected for the #brujasofinstagram hashtag feed. The video on the right displays that this Instagram post was not selected for the #witchesofinstagram hashtag feed. While Instagram hashtags feeds do not always feature posts in a purely chronological order, I scrolled down far enough in the above video to a point where older posts from 1-2 days ago would appear. Screen captures created by author.


Left images depict an Instagram post that maintains the #witchesofinstagram hashtag. It was posted an hour before these screenshots and the corresponding video were produced. The video on the right displays that this Instagram post was not selected for the #witchesofinstagram hashtag feed. While Instagram hashtags feeds do not always feature posts in a purely chronological order, I scrolled down far enough in the above video to a point where older posts from 1-2 days ago would appear. Screen captures created by author.


It could be argued that Instagram posts are selected to be featured in only one hashtag feed even if a post bears multiple hashtags. This would be difficult to verify since algorithms are proprietary information. Nevertheless, as seen in the above images, the Instagram posts circled in the first two screenshots appear in multiple hashtag feeds simultaneously. As seen in this series of screenshots, the hashtag feeds depicted are for the following popular witch-oriented hashtags: #witchesofig, #witchcraft, #witchlife and #witchessociety. Screenshots created by author.


I am unable to provide all of the collected data pertaining to these trends within the scope of this project but the following findings were apparent throughout my research: witches of colour were often featured through hashtag feeds related to ethnicity and colour including #brujasofinstagram and #witchesofcolor. People of colour including celebrities like Beyoncé were more likely to appear in the #witchesofinstagram hashtag feed if they were depicted in memes (i.e., depicted with text and a frame framing their image), or if they were illustrated depictions of people of colour. These trends also pertained to other people who did not fit Eurocentric beauty standards. In other words, people who did not fit the following criteria also appeared more often in artistic renderings and memes rather than in photographs of themselves: appear ‘feminine’ within a heteronormative scope, Caucasian-passing, of slim body types, and wear dark or black (i.e., gothic-inspired) makeup and clothing in their photographs.

To add to this, some of the selfies featured through the #witchesofinstagram hashtag feed were tagged with the #witchesofinstagram hashtag by other users but the Instagram models themselves do not necessarily identify as witches. While this is perfectly acceptable as long as these models do not object to this, it is still key to question why a more diverse range of witches are not represented in popular witch-related hashtag feeds including the #witchesofinstagram hashtag feed.

For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change'.

(Audre Lorde as cited in Minh-Ha 1987, 5)

Some may argue that social media platforms bear no responsibility to prioritize diversity and meaningful community representation over their own corporate interests. Would this mean then that communities would need to try to beat the “master” at their own “game” if social media platforms are not willing to make the necessary revisions? For example, would witches on Instagram need to discover ways to inspire additional community members to use certain hashtags like #witchesofinstagram? In doing so, would this even alter the current algorithmic curations patterns that have been observed throughout this project?

It may also be argued that members of the witch community who are not algorithmically prioritized for Instagram hashtag feed curation should promote themselves across other platforms, which many social media content creators already do. However, similar algorithmic biases towards certain body types, aesthetic features, etc. just as readily exist across other platforms. Paying for social media advertising is not always effective either since small businesses cannot compete with the sizeable advertising budgets of large corporations. While no one solution could be offered at this time to circumvent this catch-22, it is evident that algorithmic biases obstruct the authentic representation of smaller communities when it comes to technosocial frameworks including Instagram. This lack of authentic representation is particularly paradoxical where witches of Instagram are concerned since their socially conscious messages are buried by the homogeneity they collectively advocate against.

All in all, the future remains unclear in relation to how technology companies intend on addressing algorithmic biases and to what extent. Nevertheless, as a large body of scholarship continues to grow that addresses the detrimental implications associated with algorithmic biases, it will be significant for anthropologist to contribute to these discussions with their own contextualized ethnographic findings.

What's next?

The purpose of providing these findings through a digital project is to enable people to interact with these findings themselves since they are able to engage and interact with the Instagram posts that has been embedded throughout this project.

Digital anthropology poses is own dynamic, unique challenges and insights due to the fluid state of the World Wide Web. These new circumstances especially highlight why it is significant for anthropologists now more than ever before to use their unique expertise and skill sets to conduct ethnographic research amongst digital communities. It is evident through this and other digital anthropological essays that there is ample ground to cover when considering the online mobility and representation of small digital communities including online witching communities. Moreover, additional research is crucial in examining how technosocial frameworks such as Instagram promote, alter and even suppress the online representation of certain people and communities.

Regarding future research considerations, I draw on Yarimar Bonilla and Jonathan Rosa’s (2015) findings when I consider the significance of venturing beyond hashtag representation on one specific platform in order to examine the mobility, longevity and use of similar witch-centric hashtags on other platforms. As Nancy A. Van House underscores, “[T]he structure and policies of certain platforms, along with user practices and norms, support and even encourage certain kinds of self-representation, relationships, and even subjects or selves, while discouraging or making difficult others” (as cited in Cruz and Thornham 2015, 5).

Thus, it would be prudent to examine how similar non-Instagram-specific hashtags like #witch and #bruja are represented through other platforms including Twitter and Facebook. In the same vein, to further comprehend the significant roles of witch entrepreneurship in contemporary American witch communities, it would be beneficial to examine related online community forums. In order to conduct this research, ethical permission would be sought through the appropriate academic channels.

Contact

Questions pertaining to this digital ethnographic project could be directed to

devika.singh [at] mail.utoronto.ca