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Three working assumptions about social media and activism, J. Postill

July 5, 2010

Reworked notes following presentation at the Networking Democracy symposium, Cluj-Napoca, 25-27 June 2010. Many thanks to the organisers for a terrific event!

This conference comes for me at point of transition from previous anthropological fieldwork on Web 1.0 and local activism in a Malaysian suburb to imminent fieldwork on Web 2.0 and translocal activism in Barcelona. So I’m very excited to be here. If Malaysian activism was to do with local issues and was led by mostly middle-aged residents, I expect the Barcelona anti-corporate globalisation and free culture scenes (possible research sites) to be younger and geographically more dispersed and nomadic.

Aim of this presentation is to lay the conceptual groundwork in preparation for fieldwork. I will do this by reviewing the three assumptions about social media and activism in Barcelona that I am currently working with – all manner of critiques and falsifications are welcome. The three assumptions are as follows:

1. There is no overarching network society, no network logic at work in the world of activism. Instead I expect to find an ever expanding universe of socio-technical formations, both new (Twitter streams, Facebook groups, Delicious friends…) and old (e-mail lists, marches, protests, meetings, peer groups…), each with its own logic and interacting in complex ways. Instead of relying on a handful of poorly defined and overused notions such as ‘community’, ‘network’ or ‘public sphere’, we need to expand our socio-technical lexicon to keep up with a veritable  explosion of socio-technical life forms.

2. Social media are hard, perplexing work – and they are getting more so all the time. The present ‘media torrent’ (Nielsen 2009) shows no signs of drying up. How will activists (and indeed other practitioners) try to cope with the deluge of social media communication? through more communication, ignoring messages, etc (Nielsen 2009). Keeping up with technological changes, maintaining more or less stable groups, mobilising people and so on is hard, sustained work, a lot of it invisible and unsung. As Bruce Bimber pointed out in the Q&A that followed my presentation, activists are puzzled by the growing range of digital tools on offer, tools that are in flux. In addition, there is the fundamental tension between the ‘me-centric’ (Castells) logic of personal media forms such as social network sites, micro-blogging sites and mobiles on the one hand, and the collectivist practices and ideals of activists on the other. An activist who’s risen to prominence through a combination of political acumen and technical virtuosity must beware that she is not perceived as having risen at the expense of ‘the community’ (I call this problem ‘the weakness of weak ties’, see this blog).

3. Change will occur unevenly across fields of activism and political culture areas. As Epstein (1957) shows in his pioneering work on local governance in a North Rhodesian mining town, political fields are internally differentiated and their sectors change at varying rates – partly because some sectors will be better insulated than others from the winds of change blowing through the broader politico-technological landscape and political culture area (e.g. of Spain).  I expect the same will be true of the field of political activism in Barcelona in 2010-2011. At any rate, leading activists who are ‘rooted cosmopolitans’ (local but well travelled, see Ganesh and Stohl 2010) will be crucially implicated in those changes that do take place through their ability to connect local and translocal spheres of action and mediated practice. Social media tools will be but one set of tools in their repertoire.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Michael Rogers permalink
    August 8, 2010 6:03 pm

    Hi John,

    Lots of interesting ideas here. Networks seem to have penetrated so deeply into our thinking that it’s becoming difficult to think that anything might not be a network – I’m glad to see someone’s resisting that trend.

    Your point about individualist media (for all that they’re social) is also welcome, and worth expanding on, I think. Could we say that social media give material form to ideological constructs like the self-expressing (and, Zuckerberg insists, self-identical) individual, the friendship link, the public and the private – that in a sense they create social networks, rather than, as they claim, merely revealing them, and that if we want to create, for example, collectivities rather than networks, we need to think about other material forms – about what the body (digital or otherwise) of a collectivity would look like? But perhaps that’s veering too far towards technological determinism.

    I’ve recently started working on a project to develop communication tools for activists in countries that censor the internet, and something that often seems to be missing from the research in that field is an understanding of how activists use (or would like to use) digital tools, so I’m really looking forward to hearing about your research in Catalonia as it develops.


  2. August 8, 2010 9:41 pm

    Thanks Michael, yes, it’s very hard these days to avoid network-think – and it must be even more so for you and others at the UCL Networks Research Group! :-)

    I’ll definitely keep an eye out for your work on communication tools for activists.

  3. August 8, 2010 9:45 pm

    PS – One intriguing question for me is: how can we *combine* (or integrate) network and non-network ways of mapping socio-technical terrains and gauging change over time?

  4. Michael Rogers permalink
    August 9, 2010 10:57 am

    Good point, perhaps to some extent I’m just projecting the network-centrism of my own field onto the world in general. ;-)

    So, if we want to combine or shift between different sets of concepts that give us different handles on reality, I think one of the interesting problems will be how to prevent one of those sets of concepts from dominating the others – how can we avoid spending all our time arguing about which explanation is “more true”, or retranslating the things we already know into new terms?

    Maybe there’s a parallel with the problem of moving between levels of description in the physical sciences, because levels of description seem to be surprisingly good at not treading on each other’s toes: people who talk about subatomic particles don’t spend a lot of time trying to persuade people who talk about molecules to mend their ways, or vice versa. But I think perhaps that’s because there are a couple of established conventions governing the relationship between levels of description.

    The first convention says that finer levels of description have a higher claim to reality than coarser ones: the parts explain the whole but the whole doesn’t explain the parts, and for any x it’s more interesting to ask about the parts of which x is a whole than the wholes of which x is a part. But the second convention says that the correct level of description to use is the one that makes your job easiest. So the combined effect is something like “Subatomic physics is the one true description of reality, but it grants you permission to use other descriptions of reality, provided you acknowledge from time to time that they’re based on subatomic physics, and keep funding the Large Hadron Collider”.

    So the physical sciences have this sort of Pax Romana, but when we’re trying to use two different sets of concepts that have no established hierarchy between them – say, networks and spaces as descriptions of social movements – we have no obvious means for establishing such a hierarchy, and ironically I think that can make it harder to move between perspectives, because all the diplomatic work of “Of course you understand that this could just as validly be expressed in terms of subatomic particles” needs to be done explicitly.

    Oh dear, I seem to have ended up arguing that anthropology needs a good dose of imperialism. I’m sure that wasn’t what I was trying to say. ;-)


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