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Protest avatars as memetic signifiers: political profile pictures and the construction of collective identity on social media in the 2011 protest wave

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Protest avatars, digital images that act as collective symbols for protest movements, have been widely used by supporters of the 2011 protest wave, from Egypt to Spain and the United States. From photos of Egyptian martyr Khaled Said, to protest posters and multiple variations of Anonymous' mask, a great variety of images have been adopted as profile pictures by Internet users to express their support for various causes and protest movements and communicate it to all their Internet peers. In this article, I explore protest avatars as forms of identification of protest movements in a digital era. I argue that protest avatars can be described as ‘memetic signifiers’ because (a) they are marked by a vagueness and inclusivity that distinguishes them from traditional protest symbols and (b) lend themselves to be used as memes for viral diffusion on social networks. In adopting these icons, participants experience a collective fusion in an online crowd, whose gathering is manifested in the very ‘masking’ of participants behind protest avatars. These forms of collective identification, while powerful in the short term, can however prove quite volatile, with Internet users often discarding avatars with relative ease, raising the question whether they can provide durable foundational elements of contemporary social movements.
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Keywords: identity; interactivity; politics; social media; social movements; social networking

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Digital Humanities Department and Cultural, Media and Creative Industries Department, King's College London, London, UK

Publication date: August 3, 2015

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