Iconographic Tracking:

A digital research method for tracing the rhetorical transformation that images undergo as they circulate and become embroiled in various collective activities

This mapping project relies on data from an 8-year case study of Obama Hope that I have conducted using the method of iconographic tracking. Iconographic tracking is a digital research method that accounts for the rhetorical transformation that images undergo as they circulate and become embroiled in various collective activities. As I (Gries 2013, 2015) described in detail elsewhere, iconographic tracking is a recursive (and messy) process that entails the following research phases:

  • data hoarding (collecting as much data as possible),

  • data mining (sorting through data and finding patterns, trends, relationships, etc),

  • assembling a collection (organizing data), and

  • data analysis (zooming in on an image's composition, production, transformation, distribution, circulation, collectivity, and consequentiality).

Such research strategies are especially useful in helping to trace an image's distributed collective activities and generating a complex ontological account of how images circulate and become rhetorical with time and space.

Thus far, iconographic tracking has proved very effective in generating large data and metadata sets related to Obama Hope. This efficacy, of course, is due in part to the image itself. In Yrjö Engeström's (2007) terms, Obama Hope is a runaway object that began as a seemingly insignificant innovation, but acquired global influence as it began to circulate uncontrollably, escalate in practice beyond its originally intended use, and spark far-reaching and often unpredictable consequences. Obama Hope in its "Faireyized" version first entered into circulation in late January 2008 in an effort to help then-Senator Obama become the 44th U.S. President. Since then, digital manifestations and remixes of this image have surfaced on more than 2,000,000 websites, thanks in part to the invention of multiple software programs and apps that make it possible to generate digital remixes of Obama Hope with the click of a few buttons. As it has circulated both within and beyond U.S. borders, Obama Hope has also left visual traces of on-the–ground activity as it has become embroiled in hundreds of different collective actions and transformed across genre, medium, and function. Such divergent activities entail acting as, among other things, a political actor in elections across the world, an advertising agent in places such as Turkey and China, and an international activist in the Arab Spring and Occupy movements. Today, such materialization is still ongoing: Obama Hope, for instance, has been remixed to critique the NSA and show support for Edward Snowden, to generate support for the #Not1More Deportation's transnational campaign, and, most recently, it has emerged to garner support and opposition for candidates in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Such divergent rhetorical activities have left hoards of visual evidence that iconographic tracking has been able to recover.

For my original case study, I deployed iconographic tracking to discover how Obama Hope was able to go viral and become iconic in such a short time span as well as discover what kinds of contributions it has made to collective life since the 2008 election season. To find answers to these questions, I relied on various visual search engines such as Google Images and TinEye; social media sites such as Flickr, Twitter, and Facebook; editorial photographic services such as AP Images, Getty Images, and Reuters; and numerous other sites such as commercial and personal websites, online news organizations, and online forums—research that entailed looking at thousands of pictures for sightings of Obama Hope. I also conducted field research in Boston to see the Obama Hope image in both a gallery setting and on urban streets, visited the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University, conducted several phone and email interviews with citizens and designers here in the U.S. and abroad, and distributed over 50 questionnaires to various artists and political cartoonists around the country.

Digital visualization techniques that leverage distant reading methods can deepen our accounts of how images move and experience rhetorical transformation as they become part of a distributed rhetorical ecology.

This research has thus far culminated in an account more than 40,000 words long of Obama Hope's rich and complex rhetorical life, which I believe to be fairly reliable in terms of empirical research (see Gries, 2015). Yet visualizations are also useful for rhetorical study because they leverage distant reading methods that allow us "to focus on units that are... much larger than the text [or picture]: devices, themes, tropes—or genres and systems" (Moretti, 2007, p. 57). When it comes to studying circulation, distant reading is especially useful for examining one text or picture "as one among many and considering a much larger corpus whose contexts and relationships give rise to different forms of meaning" (Eyman, 2015, p. 95). Too often in past studies of rhetoric, the study of broad circulation has been limited, as scholars have tended to focus on delivery within specific contexts, genres, or media. In recent years, however, scholars such as Catherine Chaput (2010) have turned their eye to how rhetoric is often transituational and transcultural while scholars such as Collin Brooke (2009) have thought about delivery in terms of ongoing performance. As we follow their lead, using digital visualization techniques that leverage distant reading methods can prove useful. Digital visualization techniques, as this article aims to demonstrate, can especially help deepen our accounts of how images move and experience rhetorical transformation (Gries, 2015) as they become part of a distributed rhetorical ecology (Edbauer, 2005).

Visualizations are also useful in that they require not only translating cultural artifacts into data (by capturing content, form, and use) (Manovich, 2013, p. 257) but also generating metadata (data about data), a process that helps us notice trends (and anomalies) and develop questions that other research strategies might not provoke. In addition to helping us discover novel patterns and previously unidentified relationships, generating visualizations often necessitates conducting deeper research to extend data sets—research actions that open up new research directions, strengthen metadata sets, and hence lead to new insights. While my previous research with Obama Hope was quite thorough, for example, this digital visualization project has helped uncover many manifestations and rhetorical activities of Obama Hope that I missed during my initial research. Furthermore, Obama Hope is still circulating, emerging not only in the 2016 presidential election in the U.S., as previously noted, but also in other places across the world. What might we learn about Obama Hope's continued circulation, transformation, and collective activities by generating visualizations of its travels, genre diffusion, and collective activities? This is the particular research question that has driven this digital visualization project.

To find answers to this question, I expanded my original data set by using iconographic tracking to collect more evidence of Obama Hope's circulation and rhetorical transformation. Because I was intensely familiar with the visual data from my original case study, I used a sampling method for this project called nonproportional quota sampling. Nonproportional quota sampling entails predetermining the number of samples you want in your study and then, rather than making sure numbers of sampled units match the actual proportions in your population, you choose enough sample units to be able to discuss the various groups in your population. To decide which specific sample units to include in those groups and to make sure each group is both diverse and adequately represented, I then used purposive sampling.

To be more specific, I began my data collection process by setting 1000 pictures as the target sample size. I then identified the following criteria for my sample set. First, the data set had to adequately represent the global scale in which Obama Hope had circulated. Second, the data set had to adequately represent the diversity in genre, media, and form in which Obama Hope surfaced. Third, the data set had to adequately represent the diverse activities in which Obama Hope had become embroiled and the diverse functions it took on during such activities. In all these cases, I did not match sample numbers with population proportions in order to ensure that Obama Hope's unique locations, genres, media, form and functions were included in the data set. This research choice was particularly important because Obama Hope has surfaced the most, by far, in Obamicons (webicons in the style of Fairey's Hope poster) produced by U.S. Americans. Had I used proportional sampling, therefore, most of my data set would have included Obamicons from the U.S., belying the complexity in which Obama Hope has surfaced across location, genre, media, and form and reducing the diversity of its rhetorical activities.

Once I identified the specific criteria for my data set, I then conducted purposive sampling, based on my prior knowledge of the data population, to find pictures that were representative of Obama Hope's diversity in location, media, form, genre, and function. Today, this data set consists of 1000 digital image files (e.g., JPEGs, PNGs, and GIFs) that include Obamicons and photographs of Obama Hope reproduced and remixed across various media, forms, and genres.

CODINGReturn to top

With Google Fusion Data, different APIs can programmatically be queried, and the results can be data mined in real time to create more advanced and custom visualizations.

To store, organize, and analyze my visual data, I initially relied on Zotero, which helped me mine data and save URLs that documented Obama Hope's multiple transformations across genre, media, and form, as well as organize them into folders to help identify their rhetorical functions (See Gries, 2013; Gries, 2015). To organize and analyze data for this digital visualization project, I relied on data found during my prior research, but I also conducted another extensive round of iconographic tracking to create a boutique data set—smaller data sets, based on quantitative and qualitative research, that have proven useful to individual scholars' own research projects but currently are inaccessible to other researchers (Ball, Graban, & Sidler, p. 5). I also needed a tool that would allow me to easily categorize, manipulate, and export this data set for specific and custom digital visualizations. I thus entered my research findings into a Google Spreadsheet in order to leverage Google Fusion Tables, an experimental online application that enables researchers without IT backgrounds to easily upload, organize, query, and share data sets. With Google Fusion Data, different APIs can be programmatically queried, and the results can be data mined in real time to create more advanced and custom visualizations. This provides the advantage that most maps, charts, and graphs contained within my collection immediately reflect any changes and additions to the data set.

For this project, I was particularly interested in visualizing data about Obama Hope's circulation, genre diffusion, and collective activities. I thus created a Fusion Table with multiple columns that enabled me to not only record image urls and urls of a social media or website documenting Obama Hope's manifestations but also to generate metadata in the categories explicated below.

1. Location: Where has Obama Hope circulated within and beyond the U.S. border? 
• Metadata identifies the geographical spot in which a reproduction or remix of Obama Hope was created and/or photographed. Location data was mainly collected via tags on Flickr, editorial photograph captions and use information, author biographies on blogs, DeviantArt pages, Behance, and other social media sites. The GPS coordinates needed to create geographic maps were established using LatLong, a geographic tool that allows users to easily identify latitude and longitude.

2. Date: When has Obama Hope surfaced in different manifestations and engaged in various collective activities? 
• Metadata here identifies the dates in which Obama Hope manifested in a particular artifact. In many cases, the exact date in which Obama Hope surfaces is unclear. However, thanks to the date features of Flickr, blogs, online news sources, editorial photographic services, and online portfolio platforms, I have been able to provide an approximate date on which Obama Hope surfaced in a particular artifact or location. 

3. Media: In what media has Obama Hope surfaced? 
• Metadata here identifies the material in which the Obama Hope image has been constructed. Such media has been quite diverse: for instance, Obama Hope has surfaced on the cloth of t-shirts, in paint on an urban street wall, and in a portrait made out of dryer lint. To demonstrate the variety of materials in which Obama Hope has surfaced, this media category identifies the material out of which Obama Hope reproductions and remixes were crafted (e.g., ink, icing, paper, paint, vinyl, thread, etc.). In the case of digital images, some were created out of geometrical primitives such as lines via vector processes while others were created out of pixels via raster processes. In most cases, I was unable to decipher which processes were used to create the digital images. Therefore, I identified the media of all such artifacts as digital image files. 

4. Art Form: What kind of art form as Obama Hope surfaced on/in? 
• Metadata here identifies the various art forms in which Obama Hope has appeared. The range of forms has been diverse: Obama Hope has surfaced in food art, murals, menus, posters (digital and print), belt buckles, mouse pads, mosaics, and even tattoos. In cases where multiple art forms relate, they have been coded under one umbrella term. Visualizations such as pie charts become difficult to read and interpret when multiple categories exist, especially when few items are listed under each category. Therefore, rather than list individual clothing items (shoe, t-shirt, hat, sweatshirt, etc.) and accessories (tie, belt buckle, jewelry, phone cover, business card holder, etc.) separately, these art forms fall under the single categories of attire and accessory, respectively. 

5. Rhetorical Function: What specific rhetorical function has Obama Hope taken on as it has surfaced in or on a particular artifact? 
• Metadata here identifies the primary rhetorical function of the artifact bearing Obama Hope as it was discovered during iconographic tracking. For data validation purposes, I only assigned one function to each artifact based on the designer's testimony of intent, depicted collective activity, placement and content of artifact, etc. While such coding belies the plurality of functions that many artifacts serve in any given situation, identifying the primary function of an artifact based on empirical evidence at hand discourages unnecessary interpretation of function on my part and thus helps to validate data. 

6. Genre: What kind of genre has Obama Hope become engaged in as the artifacts in which it surfaced took on various social actions? (For a definition of genre and list of genre categories and definitions for this project, please see below.)

Important Note About Metadata:
For data validation purposes, each artifact has been assigned one genre category. Metadata entered in the genre category is informed by my own identification of a genre or the identification made by an artist, crafter, or journalist who created or wrote about a particular artifact. Genres are based on the specific social action in which the artifacts are deployed in the collective actions in which I discovered them. As such, while Obama Hope (in its Shepard Fairey version) may have first surfaced as election art to generate support for Obama, it was often transformed across genre and function to appear in protest signs, political posters unrelated to Obama, advertisements, etc. Except for its appearance in Fairey's original posters, the genre identified in the Google Fusion sheet is always coded for Obama Hope's secondary purpose evident in the picture that captures its then-present manifestation.

In addition, for data visualization purposes, I have grouped artifacts that relate to each other in function but not necessarily in form and media under one genre heading. For instance, under Commercial Art, I have designated advertising signs as well as graphic designs created for mass-produced utilitarian products. Under Commemorative Art, I have designated artifacts specifically produced for the Obama/Biden Inaugural Committee such as Fairey's "Be the Change" poster as well as reproductions of Obama Hope that have been produced during Black History month to commemorate Obama's historical achievement. Such a coding approach is limited in that it tends to belie the nuanced rhetorical/social actions of a particular artifact. However, as discussed above, this coding approach is useful for avoiding visualizations that are overcrowded with metadata categories and hence difficult to communicate and comprehend.


Coding for genre has proved to be one of the more difficult enterprises of this visualization project. Rhetoric and composition scholars have long advocated classifying genres from an action- and situation-based perspective. As Carolyn Miller (1984) has argued, genres are "typified rhetorical actions based in recurrent situations" (159). They are conventional means that society establishes as "ways of 'acting together'" in that they are "the rhetorical means for mediating private intentions and social exigence; [they] motivat[e] by connecting the private with the public, the singular with the recurrent" (163). As such, Miller has argued, genres ought be classified not by their forms nor by their substance but rather by their rhetorical practices common within particular communities. 

In order to preserve the integrity of data analysis, coding must be consistently subjective and transparent.

While seemingly objective, classifying the genres in which Obama Hope has surfaced proves to be a very subjective process.  As Krista Kennedy and Seth Long (2015) have argued, "coding is, of course, [always] a partially subjective process" (p. 146). In order to preserve the integrity of data analysis, therefore, one's coding, especially when collaboration is involved, "must be a consistently subjective one" (p. 146). It ought also, I argue, be a transparent one, especially when working with boutique data sets and visualizing data to both conduct research and communicate research findings. 

In order to make transparent the consistency in my own genre coding, below I define the coded categories for genres2 and briefly describe examples in which Obama Hope has manifested in each genre. To visualize and learn more about Obama Hope's genre activities, please click here.

Arts and Crafts for Obama: Artifacts that reproduce or remix Obama Hope in order to support Obama's election during 2008 and 2012 or pay homage to Obama during and after his presidential elections. In its role in the Obama Art Movement and Obama's official campaign, Obama Hope played a major role in Obama's 2008 presidential campaign as it manifested in various campaign posters designed by Fairey and distributed by a network of people across the U.S. While many posters were waved at political rallies throughout the election season, posters with Obama Hope as well as murals and stickers were also plastered on urban infrastructure. 

People and organizations also took it upon themselves to create art that reproduces or remixes Obama Hope to raise funds for Obama and/or persuade voters. Jennifer Gardner, for instance, spray painted a portrait of Obama Hope and sold it on Etsy to raise money for Obama's campaign. Organizations such as Newscorpse, on the other hand, designed and distributed McCain Nope posters on the streets of Los Angeles to persuade people to not vote for McCain. Such art has been featured on blogs such as the Obama Art Report and The Art of Obama, which were specifically designed to record this unique moment in presidential art history. While much fine art (drawings, paintings, sculpture) has surfaced with Obama Hope front and center, perhaps most interesting are the numerous tattoos that people adorned their bodies with to pay homage to Obama.

In terms of craft, one can find objects ranging from cross-stitched purses to bottle caps to homemade cakes to knitted sweaters. Many of these utilitarian items were highlighted on Flickr Pages such as Crafters for Obama. While such arts and crafts proliferated in 2008 and early 2009, since then, many people across the world have reproduced or remixed Obama Hope on a variety of goods (totes, shirts, wood canvas, paper, etc.) to show their support when Obama is visiting their country. In this capacity, Obama Hope has shown up in Ghana, China, and Germany, among other places.

Commemorative Art: Artifacts that reproduce or remix Obama Hope in order to commemorate a particular event or person's past accomplishments. Many of these artifacts were put on display at the presidential inaugural events in January of 2009 and 2013. For instance, banners with Obama Hope hung from lightposts in Chicago; Fairey's "Be the Change" poster was sold at the inauguration in Washington, D.C.; and Firefly media's video projected Fairey's Hope poster in Hollywood during Obama's inauguration in January of 2009. Other artifacts such as Obama Hope cupcakes were produced to celebrate Obama's inauguration.

While such art proliferated just after Obama's two electoral victories, since then, commemorative art with Obama Hope has only continued to proliferate. Some art has surfaced, for instance, in the form of murals and paintings in schools and community centers to celebrate Black History Month and inspire young students. 

Obamabilia: Collectibles with reproductions or remixes of Obama Hope that are intended to memorialize Obama's presidential victory and be kept because of their historical link to Obama's presidential victory. As New York Times blogger Katharine Seelye (2008) stated in "Obamabilia for Sale," "Selling Barack Obama memorabilia has been lucrative for everyone from souvenir dealers to newspaper publishers to the Franklin Mint [to the Obama inaugural team]." Obama Hope surfaced on diverse memorabilia ranging from medallions to flags to buttons to cuff links to pins to coffee mugs to watches to framed speeches. Many of these items are still available on eBay, Etsy, and websites specifically devoted to Obama memorabilia.  

Political Art: Art that integrates reproductions or remixes of Obama Hope in a variety of forms, media, and styles to intentionally communicate a political message, show approval or disapproval of a particular figure, or make commentary about a particular political issue or policy. Much political art has been generated to support or oppose a candidate in a local or national election, sometimes having to do with politics but not always. Obviously, Obama Hope influenced campaign art of Obama's opponents such as Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney during the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. Yet from mayoral elections in New York City to presidential elections in Bolivia to university rector elections in Norway, Obama Hope has also emerged to help sway public opinion and votes. 

Many of the artifacts coded as political art have also been created by amateur and professional artists as well as graphic designers to voice their opinions on a wide range of political issues, ranging from political propaganda to drones to the NSA. Much of this political art was produced in digital form, published on various online outlets, and experienced broad circulation via the internet. Yet much political art in the form of murals, stencils, yarn bombs, stickers, and wheat pastes were displayed in urban spaces and intended for mass audiences. While many murals were placed on urban walls to promote Obama's messages (and thus categorized as Art for Obama), for instance, many other political murals with Obama Hope surfaced to comment on socialist propaganda, American politics, and the BP oil spill. Obama Hope has also surfaced in the political art of artists such as Matt Sesow who have sold their work on professional websites. 

Social Art: Art that integrates reproductions or remixes of Obama Hope in a variety of forms, media, and styles to intentionally express an opinion and communicate a message about a figure or issue that has contemporary social significance. While Obama Hope has commented a wide range of broad issues such as gender equality and social justice, it has also weighed in on various ongoing debates that have become important to a particular society. For instance, while Obama Hope has surfaced to cast arguments about coal production in the U.S., it has also, ironically, surfaced to voice opinions about Shepard Fairey when a widespread debate over copyright erupted after it was discovered he lied about using Mannie Garcia's photo as a reference for his Progress and Hope posters.  

Public Campaign Art: Art that integrates reproductions or remixes of Obama Hope in a local, national, or transnational campaign that is not affiliated with a political election. From participating in a Code Pink campaign to raise awareness about military escalation abroad to an Enough Gaddafi campaign to raise public awareness about the injustices of Muammar Gaddafi's regime, Obama Hope has played an active role in a number of important campaigns both here in the U.S. and abroad.

Event Notice: Digital and paper fliers that reproduce or remix Obama Hope to promote a particular event. From plays to music performances to fundraisers to scholarly lectures and protests, Obama Hope has surfaced to promote a number of distinct events around the world. In its most infamous use, a zombified version of Obama Hope surfaced with a hole in its head in an email notice sent out by the Loudoun County Republican Committee to promote a Halloween event. While most event notices simply attract their target audience, this notice attracted national attention and sparked vociferous outrage that reverberated across the blogosphere for weeks in October of 2011. 

Fan Art: Artwork created by fans of fiction (novels, films, video games, comics, etc.) that Obamify and pay homage to characters, places, or other elements of that work. For this project's coding purposes, fan art may also refer to artwork created by fans of sports and popular television network shows that pay homage to athletes, sports teams, or celebrities. Most of the fan art that reproduces or remixes Obama Hope are, in fact, Obamicons. Members of DeviantArt, Etsy, and Flickr especially have taken it upon themselves to produce hundreds, if not thousands, of Obamicons depicting their favorite characters. From James Bond to Luke Skywalker to Harry Potter, many beloved characters from popular culture have been Obamified as have many athletes, musicians, and celebrities such as Hope Solo, John Lennon, and Anthony Bourdain.

Protest Art: Artifact integrating a reproduction or remix of Obama Hope that participates in a public rally, demonstration, or image event to assist collective efforts to protest against a political figure, challenge the status quo, raise public awareness, and/or galvanize change in policies or practices that affect a large population. Artifacts in this category may be produced or appropriated by individual activists taking part in political demonstrations or may be officially involved with an activist group, even as it is not part of an official campaign. Obama Hope, for instance, has taken place in rallies protesting the NSA in Germany and in Australia to protest the leadership of Tony Abbott.

Commercial Art: Graphic designs that integrate reproductions or remixes of Obama Hope in order to increase sales of a mass produced product or service or announce content (as in a book cover). These designs are typically created for a particular client or organization with a specific advertising or selling goal in mind. In terms of commercial art, Obama Hope has surfaced on a wide variety of mass-produced, utilitarian items such as cell phone covers, mouse pads, computer sleeves, keys, business card holders, and skateboards. In a wide variety of signs, Obama Hope has also surfaced to advertise everything from coffee to haircuts. Obama Hope has been especially popular for the outer covers of magazines ranging from Esquire to Harper's Magazine to Mad Magazine to The Advocate. And while much of its production has been targeted toward a U.S. audience, it has also surfaced in places as disparate as Istanbul and Kenya to sell, among other things, banking services, biscuits, and clothing. 

Charity Art: Artifacts with reproductions or remixes of Obama Hope that are produced to raise funds for local causes or non-profit organizations. While Obama Hope has surfaced to raise funds for Obama and hence been categorized as Art for Obama, Obama Hope has also been produced in a wide range of materials to raise funds for non-profit organizations, local schools, and youth organizations. In 2009, for example, Obama Hope was created in a large canstruction to raise money for a local food bank in Portland, Oregon. 

Creative Art:  Limited-production artifacts made by hand or computer that reproduce or remix Obama Hope for aesthetic purposes or creative expression rather than communicating a specific political message, paying specific homage to a particular political candidate, or working toward a political goal. Handmade art in this genre category has been crafted out of wide variety of materials such as wood, metal, food (e.g. beer foam, beans, icing, pancake batter, chocolate) and recycled materials (e.g. dryer lint, license plates, credit cards, soda cans). Computer-generated artifacts have also been created in pixels from sources such as Minecraft blocks and vectors in the WPAP (Wedha's Pop Art Portrait) style. Many artifacts in this category are not for sale; they have been made for individual fulfillment and artistic challenge and posted on personal blogs or Flickr. For instance, Mariann Asanuma (2009), creator of a Lego mosaic of Obama Hope, testifies on her blog that she did not create her Lego portrait for political reasons. She was simply inspired by Fairey's image and wanted to see if she could reproduce it out of Legos. In other cases, artists have chosen to sell their creative designs. Etsy and DeviantArt members, for instance, have reproduced Obama Hope alongside other popular figures such as John Lennon and Marilyn Monroe in a similar style and media, indicating that their Obama Hope rendition was primarily produced for aesthetic purposes in limited production pieces. 

Prop: Artifact with a reproduction or remix of Obama Hope that is used as assistance for educational, theatrical, or comedic purposes. As evident in its multiple appearances on The Colbert Report and The Daily Show with John Stewart, plays such as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and movies such as Iron Man 2, Obama Hope has become a useful prop for entertaining audiences. However, Obama Hope has also taken on educational significance, as it has appeared in slide presentations to educate audiences about remix, anti-Obama rhetoric, memes, visual rhetoric, and copyright infringement.

Newspaper Graphic: Digital graphic with a reproduction or remix of Obama Hope that is scanned into newsprint in order to provide visual support for a news article or opinion piece. While many digital image files reproducing or remixing Obama Hope have surfaced on blogs and other online news sources, a few newspaper graphics have also been printed. In a Berlin newspaper, for example, Hillary Clinton was Obamified with the words "Last Hope" in an Obamicon to support the author's argument that Hillary's chances for a 2016 presidential seat are made slim by the Democrat's lack of political agenda.

Political Cartoon Illustration in which reproductions or remixes of Obama Hope appear to help make commentary relating to current events or contemporary figures. As Janis Edwards and Carol Winkler (1997) have argued, political cartoons often rely on visual ideographs to assist political cartoons in using satire, parody, and irony to spark people's emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. To do so, of course, an image that functions as a visual ideograph needs to be easily recognizable to a relevant community, even as it can exist in multiple forms in different cartoons. As such, as Edwards and Winkler note, only a few images in U.S. culture such as the Iwo Jima image, the American Gothic painting, and the "I Want You" poster of Uncle Sam can function as visual ideographs. To this list, as I have previously argued (Gries, 2015), we can add Obama Hope; for by the time Obama began his first term, it had become so highly visible that it could easily function as a visual ideograph in many political cartoons to satirize Obama's administration and the response of U.S. public sentiment. Since then, Obama Hope has surfaced in a wide range of political cartoons to make political commentary about a number of contemporary political issues such as the 2013 IRS scandal and the notorious NSA surveillance leaks.  


As we begin to explore what computer generated visualizations can do for visual rhetoric, we need to make the use value of such visualizations explicit so that others can learn from our digital research strategies.

Because this digital visualization project is a very much an experiment, I have included a limited set of interpretations and observations at the bottom of each page of maps, wherein I describe what I noticed from each map about Obama Hope and discuss how such observations furthered my research process or might benefit visual rhetoric research in the future. In this sense, the visualizations presented in this webtext ought to be considered research-oriented: while I designed them to represent and communicate various information about Obama Hope, they are first and foremost a research tool. As we begin to explore what computer generated visualizations can do for visual rhetoric, we need to make the value of such visualizations explicit so that others can learn from our digital research strategies. As a field, we can learn together how to make best use of digital visualization techniques to assist us in our shared inquiries.

If we make maps available to our colleagues during our research process, they too can be involved in both the production of our visualizations and the conclusions we draw from our research.

Such co-learning is an opportunity that digital visualizations and online journals such as Kairos especially make possible because of their ability to create interactive experiences for researchers and readers. As Stéfan Sinclair, Stan Ruecker, and Milena Radzikowska (2013) have made clear, while static visualizations such as pie charts aim to produce a single perspective on the presented data, interactive visualizations aim to explore data, often as part of a research process that is both sequential and iterative: "That is, some steps come before others, but the researcher may revisit previous steps at a later stage and make different choices, informed by the outcomes produced in the interim" (para. 2). The spatio-temporal maps designed to study circulation, as I discuss in the following section, are especially interactive in that the maps evolved as I studied them, made specific observations, collected and presented more data, and updated visualizations over a three-year period. Such interactivity is especially useful in helping to generate a more complete data set and discover new patterns and research paths. However, this process ought not just involve the researchers. If we make maps available to our colleagues during our research process, they too can be involved in both the production of our visualizations and the conclusions we draw from our research. Collective intelligence, if we are to take it seriously, ought to be built via circles of input beyond our small scholarly networks or collaborative teams.

Data literacy entails the ability to gather, evaluate, visualize, draw conclusions from, and communicate data to generate new knowledge.

To foster such kinds of interactive, collaborative research process, I invite visitors to email me their observations and questions via the feedback buttons at the bottom of the circulation, genre, and actor-networks pages in this webtext3. In cultivating such a feedback loop, the interpretation process could become a collective knowledge-producing activity. Too often, scholars are left alone with their data, pressured to draw conclusions about data with which they are often too intimate to see objectively. In addition, for rhetoric scholars, data literacy is typically not prioritized in our graduate education or ongoing professionalization. Data literacy entails the ability to gather, evaluate, visualize, draw conclusions from, and communicate data to generate new knowledge. For some, data literacy might be a natural aptitude, but for me and many others, the ability not only to analyze big and boutique data but also visualize and communicate data does not come easy. Therefore, the interactive interpretative process in this digital visualization project is intended to provide an opportunity not only to produce knowledge together but also to learn together. I hope you will both interact with the various visualizations and share your feedback with me.


  • (2) In Still Life with Rhetoric, I argued that Obamicons ought to be thought of as an emergent cybergenre (Gries, 2015). One might thus expect to see Obamicons in the genre categories below. I have chosen not to include Obamicons in the coding system because I am currently exploring what data visualizations can teach us about Obamicons in a stand-alone digital project. Such research is making me reexamine my earlier claims about Obamicons, especially in that Obamicons are deployed for very diverse social actions. Until further research findings are completed, I am thus refraining from discussing Obamicons as a genre category. With that said, 363 Obamicons are included in the data set. These web icons have been coded according to their social action—typically fan art, political art, social art, or prop.

  • (3) Ideally, such feedback could be elicited in the margins of the article. Organizations such as are making it possible to solicit immediate feedback via the production of web annotation tools. As a field, we ought to be figuring out ways to make such tools available for use in our online journals.