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Social media activism in Barcelona – a few questions

November 19, 2009

In recent years millions of ordinary people in the global North have joined in the explosive growth of social media. These can be described as user-driven Web media where people create, mix and share all manner of digital contents. Although the interdisciplinary literature on social media is currently bourgeoning (see Boyd and Ellison 2007, Ellison et al 2009, Gilbert et al 2008, Ryan 2008), one relatively neglected area is the uses of social media for advocacy, campaigning and activism. Recent examples that have attracted the attention of the news media include the use of blogs and mobile devices in Barak Obama’s presidential campaign (Graff 2007), the reliance on Twitter by pro-democracy campaigners in Iran, and the creation of a powerful ‘cyberpolice’ force in China and its impact on the Chinese blogosphere. Yet despite the ample news media coverage of these developments, social media activism remains a poorly understood phenomenon (Turnšek and Jankowski 2008).

There is a growing anthropological corpus on Internet politics and activism that has prepared the ground for the study of social media activism — a form of social/political activism that increasingly relies on new social media technologies (e.g. Facebook, Orkut, Twitter, Delicious, Amazee, Flickr, Scribd, Google Docs, YouTube) for its recruitment, organisation, campaigning and self-identity. Anthropologists are well placed to investigate these trends, having previously researched the entanglements of Internet technologies with diverse political processes and/or social movements around the globe, including indigenous cyberactivism (Landzelius 2006), local e-governance (Hinkelbein 2008, Postill 2008, Strauss 2007), ethno-religious war (Bräuchler 2005), anti-globalisation activism (Juris 2008), hacker activism (Coleman and Golub 2008) and the free software movement (Kelty 2008).

These existing studies suggest the following reflections. First, Internet technologies, activists and practices shape one another in unforeseeable ways, coalescing in some cases as ‘recursive publics’ (Kelty 2008) whose communicative exchanges transform over time the very conditions of their own existence, e.g. when a certain group of activists decide after an online discussion to refashion the digital tools through which they co-operate and mobilise. Second, there is (pace Castells 2001) no global ‘network logic’ operating across the vastly differentiated Internet landscape (Miller and Slater 2000).  Rather each Internet world must be understood as having its own logic and studied on its own practical terms, beyond popular notions such as the Network Society or binaries of the ‘virtual life vs. real life’ variety (Boellstorff 2008). Third, when analysing a given mediated world we should be careful to differentiate the anthropological conceptual lexicon from the folk vernacular of our research participants, particularly with regards to normative notions such as ‘community’, ‘network’ or ‘public sphere’ that lack a precise empirical referent. For instance, claims by participants that a given wiki-based group is a ‘community’ or that a certain Twitter list is a non-hierarchical ‘network’ demand further inquiry and should not be taken at face value in view of the problematic status of both notions within the anthropological lexicon (Amit 2002, Postill 2008).

It would be interesting to investigate the current uses of social media for activism and advocacy in Barcelona. The focus could be the Barcelona-based antiglobalisation movement discussed by Juris (2008) in the anthropological monograph Networking Futures. Following the geographer Doreen Massey, Juris argues that transnational networks do not develop in a global void, for they are invariably entangled with ‘a complex nexus of translocal ties and articulations’ (Juris 2008: 63). Thus the field of Catalonian activism is a product of this region’s political and cultural uniqueness, not least of its strong anti-Francoist, nationalist and anarchist traditions (2008: 63). With Zapatista ideals thrown into the mix in the 1990s, the result was ‘a unique form of activism guided by emerging networking logics and practices’. Intriguingly, a new political language of networks evolved, with activists organising themselves around nodes and adopting Internet terminology to articulate their visions and practices. For instance, activists preferred to speak of networks rather than platforms* (2008: 69).  In sum, the Internet allowed for faster coordination whilst furthering activists’ anarchist and libertarian ideals (2008: 70).

Juris conducted his Barcelona fieldwork before the current boom in social media. How are social and political activists in Barcelona using social media today to pursue their goals? Given the myriad technological options now available, why do they use the social media that they do, and not their alternatives? Are activists making use of advocacy-specific sites such as Amazee.com or only of personal network sites such as Facebook? What are the specific rewards (Warde 2005) of social media practices when compared to other media practices (Postill in press)? Who is being included in and excluded from the emerging social media activism? Is there a generational divide at work analogous to the divide described by Juris for earlier Internet technologies? How are activists using such technologies (email, mailing lists, online forums, etc), if at all? Can we speak of new kinds of recursive publics formed through social media activism? Is there a celebratory, e-topian discourse emerging around social media analogous to the discourse that arose amongst 1990s activists around ‘networks’ in Catalonia and elsewhere (Edelman 2005, Juris 2008, Riles 2000)? Finally, what are the historical (e.g. after the 2008 financial crash) and political-cultural specificities (see Wellman et al 2002) that are co-shaping, along with the new technologies, contemporary forms of activism in Barcelona?

Image by Damien Basile

* Footnote – Although here Juris seems to overlook the fact that ‘platform’ is also a commonly used internet term.

References

Amit, V. 2002 ‘Anthropology and Community: Some Opening Notes’, in V. Amit and N. Rapport The Trouble with Community, pp. 13-25. London: Pluto.

Boellstorff, T. 2008. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

boyd, danah [sic], and Nicole Ellison 2007 “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, no. 1 http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol13/issue1/boyd.ellison.html

Bräuchler, B. 2005. Cyberidentities at War: Der Molukkenkonflikt im Internet. Bielefeld: transcript.

Castells, M. 2001 The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business, and Society. New York: Oxford University Press.

Coleman, G. and A. Golub 2008 Hacker Practice: Moral Genres and the Cultural Articulation of Liberalism, Anthropological Theory, Vol. 8, No. 3, 255-277

Edelman, M. 2005 “When Networks Don’t Work: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Civil Society Initiatives in Central America,” pp. 29-45 in Social Movements: An Anthropological Reader, June Nash, ed.. London: Blackwell.

Ellison, Nicole, Lampe, Cliff, & Steinfield, Charles. 2009. Social Network Sites and Society: Current Trends and Future Possibilities. Interactions Magazine (16) 1.

Gilbert, Eric, Karrie Karahalios, and Christian Sandvig 2008. The Network in the Garden: An Empirical Analysis of Social Media in Rural Life. ACM CHI 2008, April 5-10, Florence Italy.

Graff, G. M. 2007. The First Campaign: Globalization, the Web, and the Race for the White House. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Hinkelbein, O. 2008 Strategien zur digitalen Integration von Migranten: Ethnographische Fallstudien in Esslingen und Hannover. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Bremen.

Juris, J.S. 2008. Networking Futures: the Movements against Corporate Globalization. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Kelty, C. 2008. Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Landzelius, K. (ed) 2006 Going Native on the Net: Indigenous Cyber-activism and Virtual Diasporas over the World Wide Web. London: Routledge.

Miller, D. and Slater D. 2000 The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach. Oxford: Berg.

Postill, J. 2008 Localising the internet beyond communities and networks, New Media and Society 10 (3), 413-431

Postill, J. in press Introduction: Theorising media and practice. In Bräuchler, B. and J. Postill (eds) Theorising Media and Practice. Oxford and New York: Berghahn.

Riles, A. 2000 The Network Inside Out. University of Michigan Press.

Ryan, Jenny. 2008. The Virtual Campfire: An Ethnography of Online Social Networking. E-Book.

Strauss, P. 2007 Fibre Optics and Community in East London: Political Technologies on a ‘Wired-Up’ Newham Housing Estate. Unpublished PhD thesis, Manchester University.

Turnšek, Maja and Nicholas W. Jankowski. 2008. Social Media and Politics: Theoretical and Methodological Considerations in Designing a Study of Political Engagement. Paper presented at Politics: Web 2.0: An International Conference New Political Communication Unit. Royal Holloway, University of London, April 17-18. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1629098

Warde, A. 2005. ‘Consumption and Theories of Practice’, Journal of Consumer Culture 5: 131-53.

Wellman, B. et al 2002 Examining the Internet in Everyday Life. Keynote address (given by Barry Wellman) to the Euricom Conference on e-Democracy, Nijmegen, Netherlands, October 2002′ http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~wellman/publications/euricom/Examinig-Euricom.htm

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 4, 2010 11:04 am

    Brian Reich wrote:

    “The internet is a powerful medium for raising awareness – and the potential for messages to go viral adds all new potential. But raising awareness isn’t enough, and until we realize that, we aren’t going to see the kinds of changes in society that we want, or are needed.

    In terms of organizations online, I am just not that impressed – at least not when it comes to communications, education, advocacy, and more. The groups we hold up as models, because of their size or the level of awareness of their cause, aren’t breaking much new ground.”

    http://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/06/social-media-and-activism/

  2. March 6, 2010 11:25 am

    further refs, courtesy of Todd Wolfson:

    Day, Richard JF, Gramsci is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements. London: Pluto Press, 2005

    Escobar, Arturo. Territories of Difference: Place, Movement, Life, Redes. Durham: Duke University Press. 2009

    Holloway, John. Changing the World Without Taking Power. London: Pluto, 2002

    Khasnabish, Alex. Zapatismo Beyond Borders: New Imaginations of Political Possibility. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008

    Meikle, Graham. Future Active: Media Activism and the Internet. New York: Routledge, 2002

    Santos, Boaventura de Sousa. The Rising of the Global Left: The World Social Forum and Beyond. London: Zed Books, 200

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