About Brooke Foucault Welles, Ph.D.: Brooke Foucault Welles is Associate Professor of Communication Studies and Associate Dean for Research in the College of Arts, Media and Design at Northeastern University. Dr. Welles is core faculty at the Network Science Institute, where she served as Program Director for the Network Science Ph.D. program. An important scholar of networked communication, Dr. Welles brings innovative, data-driven methodologies to the study of socialization and political organization online.
A prolific researcher, Dr. Foucault Welles has published widely in top disciplinary and interdisciplinary journals, including Computational Communication Research; Social Media + Society; Communication, Culture and Critique, and many others. Her most recent book is #HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice, which she co-authored with Sarah J. Jackson and Moya Bailey. She is also co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Networked Communication.
Dr. Welles’ scholarship has been funded by grants from organizations like the National Science Foundation, and she has served as a Social Data Research Fellow for the Social Science Research Council. Her scholarship was honored with the Applied/Public Policy Research Award from the International Communication Association in 2020.
At Northeastern, Dr. Welles serves as Lab Director of the Communication Media and Marginalization Lab. She is also founder of the initiative Women in Network Science (WiNS) and is Director of the WiNS Advisory Board. Dr. Welles received her Ph.D. from the School of Communication at Northwestern University and both her M.S. and B.S. from the Department of Communication at Cornell University.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become interested in applying computational methods to communication research on digital media and, more specifically, in studying social phenomena like friendship and activism on digital social networks?
[Dr. Brooke Foucault Welles] I always start the answer to this question by noting that I am the world’s most reluctant computational social scientist. I was dragged kicking, screaming, and backwards most of the way into it.
Really, my interest in networked communication stems from an interest in online communication. Dating myself a bit, when I was an undergraduate student, online communication between “regular” people was only just getting started. Some of my first jobs as an undergraduate were working in research labs that were studying UseNet Groups and AOL Instant Messenger and trying to understand how people were doing social activities in those spaces.
For those who are a little bit younger, a little bit newer to the field, it is worth noting that a lot of the tools of internet communication originated in either warfare or business contexts. They were initially viewed as tools for war and productivity. Yet, we could see that people would go into these spaces and have deeply personal relationships. They disclosed things that they might not disclose in their offline life, made friends, and connected around issues that matter to them. Those observations really formed the motivating questions of my research.
Over nearly 25 years of looking at the social aspects of online communication, the volume of the data just became so large that you could not grapple with it without computation. That is where the reluctance came in. Each step of the way, I thought, “Wow, okay. I guess I’ll learn a little bit of [the programming language] R so I can engage with this. I guess I’ll learn a little bit of Python so I can engage with this,” and so on and so forth.
Today, I think of myself as computationally capable, but that is never the first thing I am bringing to the research. The first thing is always the question about what people are doing in online spaces, and then the computation gets me to a place where I can start to work on that question, but it is never the answer. Computation is the map, and it points me in the right direction.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You are a leading voice in research on “networked communication,” which, as you describe in the introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Networked Communication, involves the application of data-driven research methodologies to understand “issues of interconnectivity, complexity, and dynamic processes” that impact core concerns of the communication discipline. Could you introduce us to this type of data-driven, network-focused research and what it helps us capture about communication we otherwise might overlook? How, on the other hand, do perspectives in communication studies guide your work with computational methods?
[Dr. Brooke Foucault Welles] A lot of what we are taught in the social sciences, especially in the empirical social sciences, either exists within individuals or between individuals, like in a dyad or a group.
Social scientists do a lot of studies where we are seeing how individual people react or how information passes from one person to the next. Then in some parts of communication studies, and especially in adjacent fields like sociology, we look at whole systems, like communities, countries, or organizations. Intuitively, we know that it is actually the combination of those things that matters. We are not individual agents free from our societies or the structures around us, nor are societies free from the influence of individual agents. We cannot think of one without the other. That is the essence of network science. It allows us, both methodologically and theoretically, to think of those two things together as being mutually constituted.
I have found network science to be an incredibly powerful tool for studying communication. Within a network science framework, we can think about individuals as nodes. Nodes could be people, and people have demographics, preferences, personalities, and all those things matter and will affect whom they choose to connect to in their immediate social circle, for example. But that immediate social circle is shaped by those demographic attitudes and the context that it is in.
I cannot just be friends with any random person in the world. As a person living and spending most of my time in the United States, it is not actually feasible for me to make a friend who lives in Bangladesh without something contextual facilitating that relationship, like a conference or social media platform where we might meet.
All of those structures matter and they are mutually constituted. Network science gives us the tool to look at that. When we apply it to communication, I think it becomes really groundbreaking in terms of unpacking old theories about how things and information move in societies. A lot of communication theories have taken little stabs at understanding how that works, but have not been able to fully capture the whole complex system of human communication.
Take, for example, persuasion. Communication researchers have done a lot of dyad studies that ask, “Did you see something on television, did you hear it from an influencer, did you talk to a friend? How did you make that decision?” We have also done lots of individual studies where we might do an experiment where we show people different versions of the same news article and then ask, “Which candidate do you believe is the right candidate for you?” Then there are some society-level studies, or studies of segments of society, where we look at, for example, mass media and ask about media agendas and how they frame issues.
If we want to begin to capture the process of persuasion, we have to account for all of these elements and how they interact. I think we are just on the edge of even starting to be able to think in that direction. We are just scratching the surface of the possibilities of the data that are available and the kinds of questions we might be able to ask. I get really excited about network approaches to communication because I think it is the framework that we need in order to really try to tackle some of these big important questions. Why are we the way that we are, and why do we think the way that we think?
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your early career research focused on how people form friendships in spaces like social media platforms and virtual worlds, while much of your more recent work has been invested in digital activism. Could you discuss this development in your scholarly focus? Are there ways in which your research on friendship gave you a unique perspective or laid an important foundation for your engagements with digital activism?
[Dr. Brooke Foucault Welles] Part of the development of my research comes from the evolution of my own interests over time. I started studying social relationships, not just for the sake of social relationships, but because those relationships are functional and able to do things. In between my work on friendships and social movements, I did a bit of work on social capital, which is the thing that glues those two areas of focus together.
We have relationships, and sometimes from those relationships we get social support, sometimes we get an instrumental passing of knowledge or influence, and sometimes we get this capacity for collective action. Social capital knits ideas about the power of relationships together and helped me see the connections between friendship and social change.
If I am being totally honest, though, a lot of my career has been driven by collaborations. I am not the type of person who can easily work alone. I struggled a lot during the pandemic because I cannot think and work out problems in my own head, I need to talk to people. When I find good collaborators, I hold on to them and I value them greatly as scientific partners and friends. So, truthfully, part of the switch from studying friendship to more activism-based research was meeting Sarah Jackson and then Moya Bailey and being able to work on these interesting problems together with them.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your scholarship on digital activism specifically engages with “hashtag activism.” For example, your most recent book is #HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice, coauthored with Moya Bailey and Sarah Jackson, which won the McGannon Book Award and the Applied/Public Policy Research Award from the International Communication Association. Would you provide us with some background on this book project and introduce us to its exploration of how marginalized groups employ hashtags in their activism?
[Dr. Brooke Foucault Welles] This book was partly a response to the growing narrative in the 2010s about “slacktivism” or this “lazy” activism that was happening online. Sarah, Moya, and I are all involved in different kinds of activism circles, including some that engage heavily with social media.
We were hearing a line of pushback that decried how “kids these days” — to the extent that we could be counted as kids — are only doing their activism on the internet. People would claim this generation’s activists were not going into the streets or using any kind of institutional power in order to create social change. Frankly, these arguments did not resonate with us or make any sense to us. Everyone I know who is on Twitter or Facebook arguing about race with their friends and family members is also going to city council meetings and going to protests. It is all the same people. It is not different people.
The #HashtagActivism project started in earnest when Sarah and I noticed the #MyNYPD hashtag trending in 2014. The New York City Police Department posted this tweet asking for photos of police officers, and people responded with photos of police violence. Sarah noticed that this looks something like a counterpublic and that there was a space in the literature to talk about counterpublics on the internet.
That is why we coined the term “networked counterpublics.” The credit for coming up with the theory is all Sarah’s – she is our public sphere expert. But I understand the networks. This phenomenon is fundamentally networked. It is similar to things that have happened in the past, but uniquely enabled by these online spaces where people who share similar stories and have had similar experiences — in this case, violence at the hands of police — are able to connect online in ways they could not offline. They are able to advance these counter narratives, or stories that are different from those being told in the mainstream press.
As communication scholars we see getting covered in the mainstream press as kind of the gold standard for political discourse; mainstream news coverage shapes the agenda of what we talk about and what we care about. It does not tell us exactly how to behave, or whom to elect, or what laws to pass, but getting something into the public conversation is the first step toward creating those more sustained and institutionalized changes.
That is the origin story of the project. After we had started doing this work, Moya Bailey joined the faculty at Northeastern, and we learned that she was doing very similar work on trans rights hashtags. It was a natural collaboration. We started to talk about writing a paper together, and we quickly realized there was a bigger story to tell here. That’s how we went from a paper, to a series of papers, to a book.
There is something about the moment in history between 2012 and 2018, especially on Twitter, where these transformative hashtags kept coming up, and they were worth documenting. I am glad that we have the book now as the kind of historical record of this moment in time where people were able to make these rapid transformations using online communication.
[MastersinCommunications.com] This book explores a diversity of activist hashtags, including critical responses to gender violence like #MeToo and #WhyIStayed, the mobilization of hashtags like #SayHerName in Black feminist movements, trans women’s public advocacy through #GirlsLikeUs, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and hashtags of allyship like #AllMenCan. You have also published journal articles on many of these hashtag movements as well as others, often working with the same collaborators. Are there important themes or commonalities that you have observed across the examples of hashtag activism you have studied?
[Dr. Brooke Foucault Welles] One thing that kept coming up again and again – I was surprised at how consistent it was — is that women of color, and often queer women of color, were at the center of these hashtags and these movements and advancing these counter-narratives.
To me, one of the big, perennial questions about the internet is, “Are we changing power structures, or are we just replicating them?” I would say by and large the internet is replicating power structures. We can look around at who owns all the major platforms, and we do not see a whole ton of diversity there. Yet, because of the distributed nature of the internet and social media, there are these moments or these windows where different kinds of people can really subvert traditional power structures and really harness the power of these online spaces to do something different.
The longer we talk, the more you will realize that I am just a hopeless optimist despite all the counter evidence. I think that online platforms are not perfect and they never will be, but they allow for this new kind of potential for people to coordinate outside of having major financial donors and outside of having access to mainstream seats of power. They are still able to push through and get attention for issues that matter to them. It is just sort of up to the rest of us to listen, to find them, and to lift up those voices when we hear them. I really do appreciate social media for that.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Are there critical differences between these movements that you would highlight?
[Dr. Brooke Foucault Welles] I really was expecting to see more differences, to be totally honest. That was one of the structural things I was attending to by asking, for example, if there is a structural signature to women’s organizing versus Black Lives Matter organizing. I think in hindsight that is a silly question because of course all these identities intersect and overlap. People who are involved in one are involved in another.
I would say differences mainly emerged over time. Some of the movements that started a little bit earlier really did feel more grassroots-y: just regular folks tweeting, trying to spread a message, and coming together. By 2017, 2018, 2019 and beyond, we started to see what we might think of as “activist influencers.” Certain activists were always there, and when something bad happened they were the first to start tweeting about it.
I think there are upsides and downsides to that change. I think there is something really nice about more horizontal organizing that often consists of telling personal stories, but influencers can really command a large audience. If we want to move an issue from where nobody is talking about it to where lots of people are talking about it, those influencers and prominent voices become really powerful agents to spread that message far and wide, especially to the extent that they can retain some authenticity and connection with the communities they are advocating with and for.
If you think about the mathematics of a network, having those influencers or high-degree nodes — people with lots of connections in the network — is what allows the network to scale. We cannot grow a network that is completely horizontal and distributed. It just does not work that way because every person would need to find a different person to connect to, which is not how people use the internet or, frankly, relate to anything in their social lives. We often preferentially attach to one person in the network, and that is a normal way for networks to grow.
The problem comes when the influencers lose the thread of the message. They can take on something else or go in a different direction and then they are no longer representing the crowd anymore. I think that we have seen some nice examples of that being negotiated in real time.
The #MeToo controversy surrounding Alyssa Milano really strikes me as a poignant example. I do not think she actually meant to take over a movement that a Black woman, Tarana Burke, had started, but she did, whether inadvertently or intentionally. But when there was a conversation about that, she took that feedback and lifted up Tarana Burke as a rightful influencer in that network. That did some good things for the #MeToo movement and the women’s rights movement more generally.
[MastersinCommunications.com] At Northeastern University, you are Director of the Communication Media and Marginalization (CoMM) Lab and a core faculty member of the Network Science Institute. Would you tell us a little bit about these initiatives and your work with them?
[Dr. Brooke Foucault Welles] I am a faculty member at Northeastern University, and all faculty members at Northeastern are pretty interdisciplinary. That is kind of our signature here. A lot of us have appointments that are split across multiple departments, colleges, into research institutes, and so on. We have a number of institutes, including the Network Science Institute, that are intentionally interdisciplinary and sit outside any college to serve as research centers, where people can come with very different approaches to similar kinds of questions.
Network science is the glue that stitches our Institute together. We have folks in the Institute that study networks themselves, understanding how they form and grow. Some people work on epidemic spreading, doing network modeling work on COVID-19, RSV, Ebola — whatever is happening in the world at the time. We have folks who study biological networks and think about how drugs can treat different kinds of genetic diseases. Then there are folks like me who study information networks, asking “How does information move from person to person or from computer to computer?”
The nice thing about the Institute is that there are people with very strong methodological chops, and they can help us stretch our work in that direction. We also come at our work from a variety of different disciplinary and theoretical lenses. It really keeps me and my students on our toes. It makes us explain what motivates our work and why it matters to people from physics, biology, computer science, business, and so on. I really appreciate that aspect of the Institute.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You also recently became Associate Dean for Research at Northeastern. Could you discuss your experience working in this new position, and what your goals are for your tenure as Associate Dean? Are there important ways that your scholarly background informs your approach to administration?
[Dr. Brooke Foucault Welles] One of the things people do not really talk about is what happens in your academic career after you get tenure. So much of your academic career is positioned around getting that first job and then, if you get that first job, getting tenure. Tenure is a wonderful thing. It is a privileged position to be in. It is great to have the freedom to think about where I want my impact to be in the world.
But in the moment after tenure, I had a little window where I thought, “What the heck am I supposed to do now? I’m still pretty young. I probably have at least 20 more years of this career. I’ve checked all the scientific boxes. I did the book and we’ve won some awards. I’ve been really fortunate to have great collaborators and great opportunities. What’s next?”
I did some soul searching about what I wanted to do and what I wanted my legacy to be. I considered a lot of different options, but at the end of the day what I want is to make space for more people like me, who felt like they were outsiders in academia and research at one point, to become insiders. The best way to do that is moving into administration. You can only do it in a limited way as an individual scientist.
I think there is a lot to be said for representation and I have worked hard to talk openly and honestly about things that make me different, like being a student parent, but administration is where all the decisions get made about how to actually change the structures that make life easier or harder for people. That is the direction I moved in. At the tail end of the most difficult and isolating part of the pandemic, I was given the opportunity to be Interim Chair of my department, which was a good stepping stone to other administrative positions. I did that for a year and then was offered this Associate Dean role, which I love.
Right now my incentives are totally aligned with the kinds of things I want to be doing in the world. I get to learn about people’s research, figure out ways to help them, lift up interesting research projects, and connect people with resources in the college or across the campus to support their work. That part is really exciting for me.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In 2020, you published the article “On Writing, Surviving, and Thriving in Communication and Media Studies.” Drawing from this piece, or from your broader experience, do you have advice you would give to students interested in media studies, computational communication research, or the other topics we’ve discussed today, who are considering pursuing a graduate degree?
[Dr. Brooke Foucault Welles] On the theme of our conversation today, it is all about your network. Getting a Ph.D., even getting admitted into your Ph.D., and certainly getting your job, is at least as much about whom you know and whom you spend your time with as it is about your individual intellectual might. I think we have this seductive idea that academics are these individual philosophers that sit in their offices and produce wisdom, when in reality it is hardly ever like that. Maybe some people work that way, but I am keenly aware of how much of my career has been influenced by incredible mentors, incredible collaborators, and now incredible advisees and trainees.
My best advice is to surround yourself with people that make you feel good about what you are doing and to get away from the people who make you feel bad about what you are doing. Sometimes that comes at pretty steep costs, like cutting off ties with former mentors or peers who are not pointing you in the right direction and/or making you feel good.
The other advice, which I learned loud and clear, is do not be shy about asking for help from your network. You spend a lot of time investing in curating those relationships. One of the perks of being an interdisciplinary scholar is you almost never know what is going on. I have gotten really good at just being comfortable saying, “I don’t know what that is. Can you explain it to me?” It turns out that, I’d say 99 times out of 100, people are really excited when you ask them a question about their research. They really want to unpack that for you, and it makes them feel good. I think it helps with some of that social relationship building and curation. Letting people explain things to you is a really valuable way to learn and connect with other scholars.
Things also happen in life. Pandemics happen and you lose your childcare, you get sick and cannot teach your classes. All sorts of things will go wrong in your career. Trust that you have done a good job investing in your networks and that they can catch you when you ask for help.
That has been my trick. I am really fortunate to have a supportive network. I hope that we can come to a place in academia where it feels okay to encourage people to collaborate and to invest time in those social relationships. It is not a frivolous thing you do after the conference over drinks. It is the whole career.
Thank you, Dr. Welles, for your insight on networked communication research, digital media, political activism, and more!
Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.