Unpublished. Excerpt. In Development.  

Introduction

The chant that haunted Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid began as a low cacophonous rumble at the 2016 Republican National Convention, the few rumbles coalescing into a wall of sound captured by the media and instantly disseminated to a global audience —  Lock Her Up. Since the convention, opponents have fanned its recurrence and regeneration through memes, YouTube videos, posters, t-shirts, hats, and stickers that have all worked in concert to keep the phrase alive to this day in the public discourse, nearly two years after it made its first surfacing.

With Lock Her Up, we observe the rapid meaning generation and making that occurs in global mass mediated environments. But what tools do scholars have in the toolbox — e.g., theoretical devices, frameworks — that can help make sense of these widely shared, negotiated, and contested digital cultural artefacts. Critical-cultural scholars have used the circuit of culture to describe, frame, and explain similar meaning-making representations and flows taking place in both physical and digital environments. An influential theoretical model, the circuit is rooted in the work of Stuart Hall and British cultural theorists who developed a model that explained how meaning is formed, shared, contested, and circulated in society (Champ, 2008; du Gay, Hall, Janes, Mackay, & Negus, 1997; Leve, 2012). Whether for a physical product or a mass symbol, the meanings given to them are shaped, circulated, and transformed through five interrelated processes that act upon each other: production, consumption, representation, identity, and regulation.

Building from past scholarship in critical cultural and mass media studies, du Gay’s et al. (1997) seminal work, Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman, provided the first refined and complete treatment of the model and showed how it can be applied to gain a greater understanding of the Walkman as not only an influential physical product, but also a cultural phenomenon imbued with a plentitude of meanings from varied cultures and individuals worldwide. A mere inert commodity became a cultural artefact (Leve, 2012) due to its circulation in society and the varied symbolic representations attributed to what would otherwise be an expensive piece of plastic — ads (representations) that created the hip identity of the Walkman touting coolie.

Doing Cultural Studies and the circuit have become “staples” of critical media studies (Sender & Decherney, 2016). The model has also been applied to a variety of communication and mass communication contexts (Benecke et al., 2016; Champ & Brooks, 2010; Curtin & Gaither, 2005; Han & Zhang, 2009; Scherer & Jackson, 2008; Soar, 2009; Tombleson & Wolf, 2017). Media scholars have also used the model in new and social media contexts, arguing that it can still “provide a rich understanding of a cultural phenomenon,” (Keats, 2013) despite the obvious contextual dissimilarities to when the circuit was formed in the late 1990s — well before the radical reshaping of 21st century mass communication. Scholars have questioned whether the model is viable in digital media contexts and they have called for new frameworks and theories that better capture the complexities and novel elements of today’s mass media environment (Bodker, 2016; Havens and Tinic, 2009; Taylor, Demont-Heinrich, Broadfoot, Dodge, & Jian, 2002).

Against this backdrop, this research poses a new media test of the circuit using grounded theory and online ethnographic techniques, with the Lock Her Up digital artefact serving as the test instrument, which while introduced in a physical context has been negotiated, contested, and imbued with a plentitude of meanings largely in the digital media environment. Ultimately, this research addresses a key concern of media and critical-cultural scholars regarding the viability of the framework in this radically different environment than from when it was conceived.