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Mobiles and protest: four areas in need of further theorisation

July 31, 2015

Extract from Monterde, A. and J. Postill 2014. Mobile ensembles: The uses of mobile phones for social protest by Spain’s indignados. In G. Goggin and L. Hjorth (eds.) Routledge Companion to Mobile Media. London: Routledge, 429-438.


This broad overview of the mobiles for activism and protest literature reveals four main areas of theorisation in need of further development. First, the specific affordances of different mobile technologies matter and should not be subsumed under general notions such as ‘new media’ or ‘digital media’. As we saw with the English riots, the low cost, speed and privacy of Blackberry made it an ideal device for rioters. By contrast, Twitter became the preferred platform for grassroots clean-up operations after the riots.

Second, we must also consider the wider, and shifting, media environments in which such affordances are played out. A manner of dynamic holism is called for in which the interactions and combinations of old and new technologies, agents and actions are integral to the analysis. A variety of working concepts are being currently tested to attain this elusive goal, e.g. Barassi’s ‘complex dialectics’, Chadwick’s ‘hybrid media system’, Tufekci and Wilson’s ‘new media ecology’, or Constanza-Chock’s ‘media cultures’.

Third, the study of new forms of mobile action is still in its infancy, with notions such as Wasik’s ‘flash mobs’, Rheingold’s ‘smart mobs’, Hardt and Negri’s ‘swarm intelligence’ and cognate terms all in urgent need of critical comparison and interrogation.

Finally, further thinking is also required on the diachronic, processual dimension of these phenomena. It is not sufficient to take ‘snapshots’ of the uses of mobile media for activism and protest at a single point in time. We must also conduct phase-by-phase analyses in order to establish which (mobile) technologies – and mobile ensembles – were particularly salient at which stages in the life course of a protest movement.

Thus, below we offer a processual account of three phases in the early development of Spain’s Indignados (15M) movement, with special reference to the uses of mobile phones in each phase and their relationship to the movement’s rapidly shifting mediascapes. By way of contextualisation, we first provide two brief overviews of the recent histories of mobile telephony and protest in Spain.


Barassi, V. “Review of Networks of Outrage and Hope, by Manuel Castells (2012)”, E-International Relations, 27 February 2013.

Chadwick, A. (2013). The hybrid media system: Politics and power. Oxford University Press.

Costanza-Chock, S. (2012). Mic check! Media cultures and the Occupy movement. Social Movement Studies, 11(3-4), 375-385.

Hardt, M., and A. Negri (2004). Multitude: War and democracy in the age of empire. New York, NY: Penguin.

Rheingold, H. (2002) Smart Mobs The Next Social Revolution, USA: Perseus Basic Books.

Tufekci, Z. and C. Wilson (2012), “Social media and the decision to participate in political protest in Egypt: Observations from Tahrir Square”, Journal of Communication 62 (2): 365.

Wasik, B.(2009). And then there’s this: How stories live and die in viral culture. New York, NY: Viking.

Second session of digital ethnography reading group

July 30, 2015

by Will Balmford
Research assistant
Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC)
School of Media and Communication
RMIT University
Melbourne, Australia

After a successful first session of the Digital Ethnography Reading Group (DERG) it is time to starting thinking about our next one.

The August session of the group will be held on Wednesday 12 August (12-1:30pm, in Building 9, Level 2, Room 9, RMIT City Campus, – the meeting room next to the HDR Space). […]

This month’s reading is the Introduction and Chapter 5 of Coleman, G. (2014). Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. London; New York: Verso.

We’ll leave it to you this month, to bring points of discussion to the group, but will say that Chapter 5 charts Anonymous’ efforts in relation to Operation Tunisia/#OpTunisia and the Tunisian uprising (ostensibly the start of the so-called Arab Spring).

Remember, the DERG sessions will run on the second Wednesday of each month. Please forward this email to those you think may be interested in attending this or future DERG sessions.

See you Wed 12 August 2015!

Feel free to bring your lunch.

Notes on the first digital ethnography reading session

July 14, 2015

by Allister Hill
PhD candidate
Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC)
RMIT University, Melbourne

Last week, on 9 July 2015, the Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC) ran its first monthly reading group. It was, by all accounts, a success. Intimate enough to allow everyone the chance to readily participate, with a little under 10 people going, John Postill (as the resident academic guru) and myself were facilitating. As you can see from last week’s post, the introductory reading, Horst, Hjorth & Tacchi (2012). ‘Rethinking ethnography’, was chosen to centre the discussion on what ethnography means to us as researchers and how this shapes (or will shape) our research practices moving forward, both in relation to analogue and digital localities.

The discussion was quite varied with participants sharing both their experiences and intentions, with regards to ethnography, in a variety of areas such as internet practices, activism, social media, indigenous groups, gaming and subcultures located in Australia and around the world; including Russia, Indonesia and Spain. While many of the group have been working closely with digital worlds it was apparent that digital media and materialities are not the only matters being explored. Some other discussion topics included matters, such as:

  • How relevant is the notion of community for ethnography and the idea that locality (be that virtual and well as physical or a mix of the two) may be a more important consideration, when identifying the boundaries of ethnographic enquiry. Amit and Rapport’s (2002) ‘The Trouble with Community’ was suggested as a good resource, in relation to conceptualisations of community; and
  • When considering the ‘reflective turn’ in anthropology, it was recognised that this was now part and parcel of the constructivist approach for ethnographers, as they instinctively acknowledge what they bring to bear in their own research. Rather than disappearing into the apparatus of the ethnographers tool kit, however, the recent ‘ontological turn’ in anthropology (exemplified by the Sahlins/Latour ’showdown’ at the 2013 AAA Conference – see Morrison 2014 ) and the rise of social activism suggests that inward looking reflexivity and the existence of multiple meanings, differences and worlds inhabited are front and centre for many ethnographers.

With the nature of the first session being fairly reflexive, in itself, and broad ranging there is too much to cover here. Moving forward the reading group will likely be more focused as participants reflect and discuss each month’s ‘digital ethnography’ reading. This is not to say every reading will have to include digital elements. As with the members of DERC, I’m sure future readings will cover a wide and varied range of ethnographic methodologies, accounts and insights.

Next month’s meeting is on 12 August 2015. If you’re in Melbourne at the time and would like to attend this meeting please drop us an email.

[John Postill adds: We’ll probably be discussing a chapter from Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. Gabriella Coleman. Brooklyn, NY: Verso Books, 2014. 464 pp. Gabriella Coleman will be giving a talk at DERC on 26 or 27 August, so the reading session will be a good opportunity to do some preparatory work.]

Amit, V., & Rapport, N. (2002). The Trouble with Community: Anthropological reflections on movement, identity and collectivity. London: Pluto Press.

Horst, H., Hjorth, L., & Tacchi, J. (2012). Rethinking ethnography: An introduction. Media International Australia(145), 86-93.

Morrison, I. (2014, 24 January). Public Engagement Vs. The Ontological Turn. Allegra Lab. Available from

New digital ethnography reading group

July 8, 2015

By Allister Hill
PhD candidate
Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC)
RMIT University, Melbourne

Due to scheduling clashes, this month we are running the first group Thursday 9 July 2015, 12-1:30pm, Room 9.3.5A/B [RMIT city campus, Melbourne]. Moving forward they will be run on the second Wednesday of each month, starting on 12 August 2015 (12-1:30pm). See also the meeting invite.

As this is the first session we’d like you to think about some of the following. What ethnography means to you and to your research? How does your understanding of ethnography shape your practices as a researchers / how do you expect it to, if you are just starting out now? Where is the digital located, for you, in relation to ethnographic practice?

This month’s reading is (see attached, NB if the link doesn’t work you may need to right click and open link in a new window).

Horst, H., Hjorth, L., & Tacchi, J. (2012). Rethinking ethnography: An introduction. Media International Australia, 12(145), 86-93.

With regard to the reading for this week, Rethinking ethnography, perhaps one or a few of the following matters could be considered and discussed with the group:

  1. What are the ways in which the article encourages the reader to ‘rethink’ ethnography and ethnographic practice? How does this rethinking facilitate understanding the world (in particular digital lives and media) in ‘useful and insightful ways’ and more?
  2. Nightingale (2012) ties the development of media ethnography to the cultural or ‘reflexive turn’ in anthropology. What does this ‘reflective turn’ refer to? Furthermore, in what ways could this have lead to improved ethnographic practice in media and cultural studies and the expansion of media anthropology?
  3. Do you agree with Small’s (2009) differentiation between the ways that sociologists and social/cultural anthropologists have used and approached ethnographic research? What are the ways that sociologists approach ethnography, that may differ from anthropologists, if they are more inclined to encounter questions as to the validity of their research based on ‘how many’ and ‘who’ are in their study?
  4. Explore the notion of ‘being in fieldwork’ as used, with a nod to studying virtual worlds, by Boellstorff et. al (2012) and how that compares to what anthropologists may have considered ‘participant observation’ in the past.
If there are any digital ethnography readings that you would like to recommended, start thinking of them now and/or email them through and we can work towards setting up the list of readings for future reading groups.

Educating ‘bilingual’ children in Spain and Denmark

June 26, 2015

Educating ‘bilingual’ children in Spain and Denmark: childhood bilingualism as opportunity or constraint

by Kenn Nakata Steffensen
University College Cork/University of Tokyo

See PDF 

The word ‘bilingual’ has acquired vastly divergent politicised meanings in contemporary Spanish and Danish discourses on childhood education. In the former, it tends to denote competence in a foreign language, which is almost universally assumed to be English, while in the latter it refers to relative lack of competence in Danish. The two conceptions of ‘bilingualism’ as an opportunity or constraint are thus positive and negative, both in an evaluative and descriptive sense.

In Spain, ‘bilingualism’ is a desirable marker of success and upward social mobility, in Denmark it is an obstacle to the same. In both national discourses, language comes to stand for something else, namely class and ethnicity, as well as integration into (in the Spanish case) a transnational elite and (in the Danish case) the national community. In the Spanish context, ‘bilingualism’ is constituted as a personal and public good to be developed through the education of children and adolescents, hence the growth of ‘bilingual’ schools in recent years. In Denmark, childhood ‘bilingualism’ is seen as an ill to be eradicated through the education system.

The language that Spanish parents and politicians want their children to become ‘bilingual’ in is, above all, English. It represents global power, progress, modernity and recovery from imperial decline. Following the maxim ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’, Spain was historically defeated by English-speaking imperial powers and now seeks to join an ‘Anglobalising’, post-imperial, world order on its terms.

In Denmark, fluency in English is also – but to a much lesser degree – a marker of elite status which is widely distributed among the population and not associated with ‘bilingualism’. The mostly Middle Eastern, South Asian and African languages that pose the ‘bilingualism’ problem in Denmark are associated with backwardness, poverty and ignorance. With the strong historical link between ethnic nationalism and the Danish/Scandinavian welfare state model, failing to address the problem posed by ‘bilingualism’ threatens the survival of the state as a community of shared values embodied in a strongly monolingual conception of the nation.

In both cases, the supposed objectives are unlikely to be met and are not ultimately grounded on language and bilingualism as such. The different meanings ‘bilingualism’ has acquired in the two countries have their historical origins in the nature of their particular early-modern composite monarchical states, the rise and demise of their colonial empires, and their respective 20th century experiences of modernising authoritarianism and welfare capitalism.

Real full paper (PDF)…

Review of The Logic of Connective Action by Bennett and Segerberg

June 25, 2015

tempThe Logic of Connective Action: Digital Media and the Personalization of Contentious Politics. W.L. Bennett and A. Segerberg. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 240 pp.

John Postill
RMIT University
24 June 2015

Book review for International Journal of Press/Politics (IJPP) (forthcoming 2015). See PDF

The Logic of Connective Action asks a timely question, namely ‘how digitally networked action works in an era of increasingly personalised political participation’ (p. 211). The book’s premise is that the long-term decline in membership of civic and political organisations observed across the West, along with a ‘personalisation’ of lifestyles and media practices, suggests people’s engagement (or not) with politics may have changed.

To explore this shift, Bennett and Segerberg coin the concept of ‘connective action’, a form of contentious action based on sharing personalised contents through social media. This they contrast with an earlier logic of collective action that relies on the formation of collective identities. The challenge for ‘connective’ action networks is not how to get individuals to contribute to a cause. After all, people are already routinely contributing their free labour, or ‘sharing’, through social media. Instead, the challenge is how to turn that sharing into ‘public engagement, policy focus, or mass media impact’ (p. 58). More often than not, argue the authors, part of the answer is not to subsume individuals under a collective identity but rather to get them to share ‘personal frames’ derived from inclusive ideas, e.g. variants on the “I am the 99%” meme.

Chapter 1, ‘The logic of connective action’ develops a three-part typology of collective vs. connective action (see the helpful diagram on p. 47). In contrast to the collective action of ‘organisation-brokered networks’, two different types of connective action are introduced: crowd-enabled vs. organisation-enabled action. The Occupy movement is a crowd-enabled action network, whilst the London-based coalition Put People First (PPF) typifies an organisation-enabled network.

Chapter 2, ‘Personalised communication in protest networks’, compares two coalitions linked to the G20 London summit of 2009 – the organisation-enabled PPF and a classic collective action network named Meltdown. Despite its more personalised approach, PPF attained a high degree of organisational coherence (p. 78) and remained ‘managed and focused’ (p. 86).

Chapter 3, ‘Digital media and the organisation of connective action’ compares once again two 2009 networks. Here, however, both are connective action networks: the crowd-enabled #cop15 protests in Copenhagen vs. the organisation-enabled #thewave in London. By examining in detail two key Twitter practices (hashtagging and hyperlinking), the analysis reveals that the ‘crowdsourced’ gatekeeping of the Copenhagen Twitter stream was no less coherent than that of the organisation-managed London stream.

Chapter 4, ‘How organisation-enabled networks engage publics’, compares another pair of action networks: fair trade networks in Germany and the UK. It argues that public engagement as a desirable goal for all action networks is not a given. To establish which conditions favour or inhibit organisation-enabled connective action, we must identify the ‘opportunities and trade-offs in the political environment’ (p. 145).

Chapter 5, ‘Networks, power, and political outcomes’ compares the UK’s organisation-enabled Robin Hood Tax (RHT) network with the crowd-enabled Occupy movement in the US. The aim is to examine ‘[h]ow power operates in different kinds of connective action networks’ (p. 149). Bennett and Segerberg introduce the notion of ‘power signatures’ to gauge ‘the degree to which recognition (prestige and influence) is concentrated or dispersed among actors in a network’ (p. 152) who can ‘set conditions on how power is organised’ (p. 155). Despite their different power signatures, both networks managed to ‘change the conversation’ on inequality in their respective nations (p. 165).

Finally, ‘Conclusion: when logics collide’, is more than a recapitulation, as it takes up a new issue: the conditions under which internal strife can arise within action networks. Thus, within Occupy ‘fundamentally different ideals and ideologies of organisation and action’ arose over online deliberation technologies during the post-encampment phase (p. 200).

This is a remarkable book that doubtless accomplishes its mission of understanding ‘how digitally networked action works in an era of increasingly personalised political participation’. The book straddles the conventional pre- and post-Tahrir divide running through much of the current protest movements scholarship. It also develops an original conceptual vocabulary, spearheaded by the notion of ‘connective action’. In addition, it makes fruitful, systematic use of the comparative method, as well as developing methodological innovations around web crawling and other digital techniques. As if that were not enough, The Logic of Connective Action even wrestles with one of the more vexing problems of social network analysis: its customary inattention to questions of power (see Chapter 5). In doing so, it opens collaborative avenues with social movements scholars currently attacking power from other angles, including field theory. As the authors point out, there are limitations to the network analysis approach adopted in the book, and therefore much scope for future collaboration with ethnographers and other qualitative scholars.

The book suffers from two main weaknesses. First, the authors succeed in making the more ‘boring’, technical sections accessible to non-specialists, yet most chapters are rather too lengthy, and there is a fair degree of redundance. The more fundamental problem, though, is the idea that different action networks possess their own ‘logics’ – and indeed that there is such a thing as a ‘logic’ of connective action. Although this idea drives the book, it is left unexplained. In fact, there appears to be a manner of causal linearity in the argument. So long as the analyst can identify the unique logic (or mix of logics) ‘at work’ in a given action network, the rest (digital media, internal frictions, political outcomes, etc.) will follow logically, as it were. In avoiding the technological determinism of cruder accounts, Bennett and Segerberg may have veered too close to morphological determinism by presuming that network form begets contentious action type. This brings us to the perpetual question of agency. Does the power and agency of network participants end at the very point at which they have co-created a given ‘logic’ of action? This is unlikely, suggesting the need for a revised theory of action that can handle the messy, multi-directional causality of contentious politics.

About the author

Dr John Postill is Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow at RMIT University, Melbourne, and Digital Anthropology Fellow at University College London (UCL). His publications include Localizing the Internet (2011), Media and Nation Building (2006) and the co-edited volume Theorising Media and Practice (2010, with Birgit Bräuchler). Currently he is conducting anthropological research on new forms of digital activism and civic engagement in Indonesia, Spain and globally. He is also writing a book on the connection between techno-politics and new citizen movements around the world, as well as the co-edited volume Theorising Media and Change (with Elisenda Ardèvol and Sirpa Tenhunen).

21. Review of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous

June 12, 2015

9781781685839_Hacker__hoaxer-294b89cbd6b3950d9cdbfb0e39e66884Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. Gabriella Coleman. Brooklyn, NY: Verso Books, 2014. 464 pp.

John Postill
RMIT University
Melbourne, 12 June 2015
forthcoming, American Anthropologist

The past five years have seen a global flourishing of political initiatives in which tech-minded actors of different kinds (geeks, hackers, bloggers, online journalists, citizen politicians, etc.) have played prominent roles. From whistleblowing to online protests, from occupied squares to anti-establishment parties, these ‘freedom technologists’ can no longer be dismissed, particularly after Edward Snowden’s revelations about the surveillance abuses of America’s NSA and allied agencies. Based on long-term anthropological fieldwork, Gabriella Coleman’s Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, is a riveting account of one these new collective actors: Anonymous.

Written for a general readership, in the conclusion Coleman reveals that the book has two ‘clashing objectives’. ‘First and foremost’, it has the ‘Apollonian’, ‘empirical’ aim of setting the record straight about Anonymous. Contrary to their popular image as reckless online hooligans, Anonymous has now ‘matured into a serious political movement’ (p. 392). The book also has an ancillary, ‘Dionysian’ aim: to “enhance enchantment” by learning from Anonymous’ exploits on their own terms, not through academic jargon, so as to ‘nudge forward [the ongoing] process of historical and political myth-making’ (p. 394).

To elaborate on this idea, I wish to suggest that Coleman has actually written two (thoroughly entangled) books within the covers of one. Book 1 could be titled Coming of Age on the Internet: How Anonymous Matured into a Serious Political Movement. This is a book retracing the group’s exhilarating journey ‘from motherfuckery to activism’ (p. 396). Coleman finds reasons for hope, for if ‘one of the seediest places on the Internet’ (p. 51) – the uncensored website 4chan – could spawn such a formidable force for change, we may still have a chance to reverse the ‘total surveillance’ course taken by the US government and its allies after 9/11.

The story begins in 2008 (chapter 1) when Anonymous, until then a brand used primarily for trolling, ‘unexpectedly sprouted an activist sensibility’ (p. 19). This sensibility soon blossomed when some Anons took on their ‘evil doppelganger’, the Church of Scientology. Although a successful operation, their use of strictly legal tactics earned them the accusation of ‘moralfaggotry’ from hardcore participants (chapter 2). Other political milestones would follow, including their defence of WikiLeaks in the late 2010 ‘Cablegate’ affair (chapter 4), the campaign against Tunisia’s authoritarian regime whose downfall ushered in the ‘Arab Spring’ (chapter 5), various operations launched against the security industry (chapters 7-9) and in support of Occupy (chapter 10), ending with the outing as an FBI informer of an influential Anon named Sabu (chapters 10-11).

If Book 1 tells a compelling story of transformation, then Book 2, the eponymous Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous, is an account of the continuity-in-diversity that makes Anonymous what it is. Taking our guidance from its title, we can divide Book 2 into four main parts, each emphasising one of the ‘many faces’ of Anonymous. Part 1 (chapters 1-3) could be aptly named ‘Hoaxer’, for it is here that we learn about the more ‘lulzy’ exploits of the collective, that is, about its penchant for online trickery and mischief. Part 2 (chapters 4-5), where WikiLeaks looms large, could be named ‘Whistleblower’, followed by Part 3 (chapters 7-9), ‘Hacker’, devoted to a range of ‘security ops’, and ending with Part 4 (chapters 10-11) ‘Spy’, where Sabu’s betrayal is dramatically confirmed.

Beneath this broad typology lies a wealth of ethnographic detail. We follow the trajectories of a range of research participants, both online and offline, as they traverse a labyrinthic social world in constant flux. Some are skilled hackers, others merely geeks, still others have a way with the media, or simply don the Guy Fawkes mask during street protests. Yet amidst all this diversity there is also unity, as Coleman explains in the Introduction. For all their differences, most regular Anons enjoy gathering around IRC channels, share a predilection for ‘deviant humour’, despise the cult of celebrity, and are always keen to tinker with digital tools (or ‘weapons of the geek’, chapter 3). Although it may look chaotic to the untrained eye, Anonymous is held together by its ‘relationships, structures, and moral positions’ (p. 114).

Who in academia would benefit from reading this work of popular scholarship? While the volume as a whole deserves to be widely read, the helix I am calling Book 1 will be of particular interest to scholars and students of politics, political anthropology, social movements and activism. For its part, Book 2 is essential reading for those with an interest in media, communication, and digital culture. As Douglas Rushkoff puts it in the book sleeve, it is ‘a perfect initiation for all those n00bs out there still wondering what a ‘n00b’ is’. Moreover, this double-helix volume will make a very strong addition to courses on research methods, ethnographic writing and public anthropology. Indeed, by pursuing her two ‘clashing objectives’ simultaneously, Coleman sets a worthy example for students and scholars wishing to experiment with new ways of writing (digital) culture – and reaching diverse audiences while they are at it.

Back to freedom technologists series…

About the author

Dr John Postill is Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow at RMIT University, Melbourne, and Digital Anthropology Fellow at University College London (UCL). His publications include Localizing the Internet (2011), Media and Nation Building (2006) and the co-edited volume Theorising Media and Practice (2010, with Birgit Bräuchler). Currently he is conducting anthropological research on new forms of digital activism and civic engagement in Indonesia, Spain and globally. He is also writing a book on the connection between techno-politics and new citizen movements around the world, as well as the co-edited volume Theorising Media and Change (with Elisenda Ardèvol and Sirpa Tenhunen).

Follow John on Twitter: @JohnPostill


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