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Democracy in the age of viral reality (3)

November 7, 2011

Continued from Democracy in the age of viral reality (2)

Media epidemiography

In the introduction I noted that the new coinage ‘media epidemiography’ collapses the terms ‘epidemiology’ and ‘ethnography’ as a provocation to think about how we may study ethnographically the media epidemiology of popular protests that ‘go viral’ and morph into new social movements.

Following the cognitive anthropologist Dan Sperber (1996), I am using the term ‘epidemiology’ in a neutral sense to refer to the study of the distribution of a given cultural representation within a population – in this case, the distribution of media contents related to the 15-M movement. Sperber’s (1996) ‘epidemiology of representations’ programme seeks to explain human culture by means of the mental and social micro-processes whereby cultural representations (words, songs, poems, images, recipes, etc.) spread throughout a population. To understand why certain representations are adopted and others not, argues Sperber, we must consider both evolved psychological dispositions (e.g. humans are innately better at recalling a story than a long list of random words) and specific sociocultural milieus (e.g. in some societies people trust authority figures more than in others). Of particular interest to Sperber are those ‘relevant mysteries’ that resist final interpretation. For instance, people around the world are fascinated by ghosts and other supernatural beings that are similar to humans in some respects but bafflingly dissimilar in others, such as their ability to walk through walls or float in mid-air. The paradoxical nature of these representations ensures their wide diffusion and perennial appeal down the generations (see Boyer 2000, 2001).

Debra Spitulnik’s (1996) work on radio and public culture in postcolonial Zambia complements Sperber’s epidemiological model. Spitulnik asks why some types of radio discourse but not others have spread widely across the Zambian population. Through the ethnographic example of the phrase ‘Over to you’, which originated in a Zambian radio programme by this name, she shows that some discursive items are inherently more ‘detachable’ from their original contexts and reproducible than others. ‘Over to you’ is a form of meta-pragmatic discourse (‘speech about speaking’) that can be more easily transferred to speech situations outside a broadcasting context. During her field research in Zambia, Spitulnik encountered this phrase in contexts as diverse as a choir practice, a traditional wedding, and a letter from a teenage girl.

Most contemporary anthropologists, however, have little time for diffusionist or epidemiological models of human culture. For example, Ingold (2000) contends that to understand human life we must study its embedded sociality and not the alleged diffusion of cultural representations or ‘memes’ whose ontological status is questionable at best. It is for this reason, he contends, that ethnographers rightly focus on social context rather than on ‘transferable content’. The problem with Ingold’s position is that it rests on a false dichotomy. In fact, to understand our contemporary media-rich societies we have no choice but to consider both situated context and transferable content. Spitulnik’s ethnographic research demonstrates how certain kinds of radio discourse – or indeed, any other kind of mediated discourse – can be recontextualised beyond the immediate contexts of their reception.

This blog post is a brief epidemiographic account of the 15-M movement in Spain. My aim is not to be comprehensive but rather to exemplify some of the potential uses of an epidemiographic approach in the study of digital media and popular uprisings. I do so by means of four working concepts, namely campaign virals, viral campaigns, niche virals and sustainable virals.

Campaign virals

In his bleak account of contemporary America, Bill Wasik (2009) describes how the Web is now awash with sophisticated amateurs vying to be the creators of the next viral video, photograph, or catchphrase. To this end they obsessively monitor the ever changing societal trends through backend statistics provided by their blogs and other platforms and ceaselessly experiment with new tools and contents. America has become a ‘viral culture’ in which stories have an ever decreasing lifespan and political campaigning becomes one long succession of trivial ‘nanostories’ – a societal shift from politics to ‘nanopolitics’ (see also Spitulnik’s [1996] notion of ‘small genres’).

The first part of this portrayal travels well to contemporary Spain. Like Wasik’s American amateurs, Spain’s netizens employ user-friendly statistics to discover which online contents ‘work’ and which do not through a process of trial and error. Estalella (2011) has documented ethnographically the sophisticated handling of audience statistics by Spain’s ‘passionate bloggers’ in 2006 and 2007 – just prior to the explosive uptake of Facebook ,Twitter and other sites which have radically reconfigured the Spanish blogosphere. Some of the A-list bloggers discussed by Estalella went on to become early adopters of social media and leading participants in the 15-M movement, taking up the crucial role of bridging older and newer media in the emerging informational ecology.

But Spanish nanopolitics look very different from those in Wasik’s account, which is based on US presidential campaigns. What is striking about 15-M nanostories is how successfully leading activists used Twitter in the build-up towards the 15 May protests across Spain. By means of Twitter hashtags such as #15M or #15mani (#15mdemo), DRY supporters were able not only to rally protesters at short notice but also to set the changing political and emotional tone of the campaign.  Two activists explain it in these terms:

[T]he direction (el sentit) is created mostly on Twitter. Hashtags serve not only to organise the debate but also to set the collective mood: #wearenotgoing, #wearenotafraid, #fearlessbcn, #awakenedbarrios, #puigresignation, #15mmarcheson #closetheparliament (@galapita and @hibai 2011).

The nanostories being shared about specific protests or power abuses may be short-lived, but over time they add up to a powerful sense of common purpose amongst hundreds of thousands of people. Together, they form a grand narrative of popular struggle against a corrupt political and economic order. A key part of Real Democracy Now’s (DRY) strategy prior to the demonstrations was to make the campaign a regular occurrence on Twitter’s ‘trending topics’.  Knowing that Twitter’s trending algorithm favours novelty over volume (Cullum 2010), they succeeded by regularly changing the campaign keywords and encouraging followers to retweet the newly agreed hashtag so that it would ‘trend’, thereby reaching a much wider audience.

But it was not only micro-blogging activists who made a contribution.  With obvious admiration, an El Pais blogger described the participatory nature of the process as follows:

Demonstrators have been narrating and uploading countless photos onto Twitter, Facebook and forums from all cities, improvising an impressive citizen coverage. Witness, for instance, the collected photos on Topsy here and here or Twitterers’ galleries such as this or this (Rodriguez 2011).

Slogans were particularly important to DRY’s success as a galvanising meta-platform. They were the outcome of both forethought and improvisation. Thus in the weeks prior to the 15 May protests, DRY became a manner of ‘meme factory’ by encouraging ordinary citizens to submit slogans both face-to-face and via their official website. The best of these submissions were then remediated onto small placards and other technical supports, resulting in scores of potentially viral slogans making their appearance on the streets and squares of Spain on 15 May. As we would expect, whilst some of these slogans rapidly ‘caught on’ (e.g. the now ubiquitous “We are not commodities in the hands of politicians and bankers”) others rapidly faded into oblivion, unable to withstand the powerful selective pressures at work in a highly viral media ecology. What to me and other DRY observers appeared at the time to be a cacophony of messages – some of them mutually contradictory – turned out to be a strategy perfectly suited to Spain’s 2011 mediascape. This is an increasingly democratised and ‘flattened’ landscape in which activists, bloggers, hackers, journalists, politicians, intellectuals, celebs and countless ordinary citizens strive to ‘share’ virals in competition and cooperation with one another.

How can media ethnographers hope to study such massively distributed, nomadic, and fleeting cultural artefacts as campaign virals? I believe that we can make a contribution by being selective and tracking a manageable set of virals, as indeed do research participants struggling to keep abreast of a fast-moving campaign. As always in ethnographic research, the guiding principle is ‘follow the locals’ – in this case by tracking their navigation of a changing mediascape teeming with virals. In addition to conducting synchronous participant observations, the media epidemiographer can reconstruct the main stages of a media pandemic by revisiting the key sites of viral production, mutation and propagation. In the case of the 15-M movement, these sites include campaigners’ meme factories, public spaces such as streets and squares, and key websites, e.g.  Twitter, Facebook, blogs and news sites.

For example, one could revisit the 15 May demonstration presented in the ethnographic vignette with epidemiological questions in mind, using materials freely available on YouTube, Flickr and other sites to gain a situated understanding of how the main slogans were used on the day. One could also request information from protesters about the main slogans that they recall from that day, and later present them with the materials to elicit further data. Additionally, and taking our cue from Carlos’ close attention to Twitter throughout the march, we could interview leading campaigners about their viral strategy prior to and on 15 May, e.g. on how they went about ‘playing the algorithm’ so that the campaign would become a global trending topic on Twitter.

Viral campaigns

Following the 16 May encampment at Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square and the failed attempt by the authorities to dismantle it, the 15-M campaign itself ‘went viral’.  What started as carefully planned and executed day of protest mutated in a few days into both a mass movement and a global media event. The following list is but a partial inventory of the media forms that contributed to the informational pandemic:

  • Web forums, e.g. Burbuja.info had 17,000 posts by 20 May
  • Blogs, e.g. top blogger Ignacio Escolar’s received 10,000 visits per hour
  • Collaborative documents such as manifestos,  press releases and directories
  • Pedagogical materials on Spain’s electoral system
  • Analogic versions of digital media forms, e.g. post-it tweets on square kiosks
  • Cartoons published online as well in print form
  • Mainstream and alternative radio phone-ins
  • Citizen photography, including Flickr group Spanish Revolution
  • Videoclips, e.g. 40-second aerial view of Puerta del Sol by an independent media company viewed 275,000 times in less than 24 hours
  • Live streaming by small alternative media
  • Aggregators and link recommendation sites, especially Meneame, experienced unprecedented traffic growth
  • Facebook – by 10 June the DRY Facebook group alone had 400,000 members
  • Twitter users linked to 15-M numbered just over 2,000 users on 25 April and 4,544 users on 15 May; by 22 May this figure had expanded tenfold to 45,731. DRY had over 94,000 followers by 22 August[i].

What are we to make of this media explosion? What is the causal relationship between viral media usage and the birth of a new mass movement out of a day of protest? While further research will be needed to unravel these complex relationships, a comparative perspective can already offer us some clues. As said in the introduction, Tufekci (2011) has suggested that in the digital era authoritarian regimes can no longer rely on ‘quarantining’ pockets of resistance through a targeted use of force. Unable to arrest the ‘information/action cascade’ of oppositional contents spread virally through social media and mobile phones, autocrats are faced with two stark choices: either heavy-handed repression and the risk of civil war, or a negotiated transition to a democratic order.

Of course, in (nominally) democratic countries such as Spain, Portugal and Greece this scenario does not apply, but Tufekci’s (2011) contention that the new media ecology is a ‘game changer’ is still apposite. Although Spain’s journalists, bloggers and Twitterers are in principle free to report on the protests without risking their lives[ii], the mainstream media are still in the hands of powerful interests with strong ties to the country’s political class. Like their North African brethren, pro-democracy activists in Spain had to build the protest’s momentum through alternative (social) media platforms and Tahrir-like occupations in order to attract mass media attention.  Overwhelmed by the speed and scale of the square occupations, Zapatero’s government was never in a position to set the media agenda, not even by the government-controlled broadcaster RTVE. Once the information/action stream had turned into a cascade and protesters were gathering in their hundreds of thousands across the country, there was nothing the Spanish government could do to stem the tide of mobilisations.

A media epidemiographic reconstruction of the 15-M ‘Big Bang’ would add context and nuance to the impressive statistics on the huge rise and diversification of media usage (see Borge-Holthoefer 2011). One important set of issues that ethnographers can document is the experience of living through a media pandemic. What was it like to contribute to the birth of a mass protest movement? What part did different virals (slogans, videos, photographs, news reports, etc.) play in those experiences? How did participants cope with the viral overload? How did they decide which viral media platforms (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, Flickr), if any, to rely on for their information/action? How did the widely shared sense among protesters that they were ‘making history’ transform their day-to-day understanding of the movement’s main slogans and symbols? Were there any turning points or epiphanies, and can they be explained epidemiographically?

To address this last question, let me briefly recount my own experience as a participant researcher at Plaça de Catalunya, in Barcelona, during the first days of the occupation. On arriving I could barely recognise it as the same square that I had known only a few days earlier at the start of the 15 May march. The square had metamorphosed into a bustling urban settlement filled with people, stalls, signs and tents. After perambulating the square, I sat on a kerb next to an amateur film-maker at work. Passers-by were invited to sit in front of a camera and adlib about the historic events they were living through.

I still recall vividly the strong sense of connection to the strangers I spoke to during that fleeting moment, namely the Portuguese film-maker, a local activist from an anti-eviction platform, an old-age pensioner and a West African immigrant. Under normal circumstances – say, on an underground train – we would have found no reason to talk to one another, but the present situation was anything but normal. The 15-M movement had brought us together, and the sense of ‘contextual fellowship’ (Rapport and Amit 2002:5) cutting across divides of age, class and race was very powerful. This was a textbook moment of Turnerian liminality and anti-structure, a time in which the city’s socio-political conventions were being held in abeyance. I later described it as the return of the politically dead (myself included) to Spain’s streets and squares, which were now crowded with ‘political zombies’. Many participants later reported a range of psychosomatic reactions such as goose bumps (carne de gallina) or tears of joy. I felt as if a switch had been turned on, a gestalt switch, and I had now awakened to a new political reality. I was no longer merely a participant observer of the movement, I was the movement. From that moment onwards, virals such as #takethesquare or #Iam15M (#yosoy15M) acquired for me – and countless other ‘converts’ – a very different meaning; they became integral to the new paradigm that now organises my emic understanding of the movement.

These affect-laden ‘episodic memories’ render visible to the media epidemiographer the main faultlines running through an emergent movement such as 15-M.  In my case, the epiphany just described has allowed me to distinguish between people who believe in the illusio of the ‘games’ played in the 15-M field of endeavour (Bourdieu 1996) and those who have maintained a critical or antagonistic distance from the movement –  a crucial distinction between believers, sceptics and nonbelievers that shapes the circulation of viral contents related to it.

Niche virals

In our fascination with the more successful campaign virals and with the explosive growth of certain campaigns, we should not lose sight of more thinly distributed media contents. Anderson’s (2006) well-known concept of ‘the long tail’ is pertinent here. This author argues that modern economies are gradually moving away from a focus on a small number of goods and services that are ranked and celebrated as ‘hits’ (e.g. bestselling books or DVDs) and towards ‘a huge number of niches in the tail’ (Anderson n.d.). In the present digital era when storage and distribution costs are practically nil, many niche products and services are becoming economically viable, as Amazon.com discovered long ago.

Applying this insight to the study of social unrest opens a broad avenue of epidemiographic investigation, e.g. through interviews with participants about their recollection of particular media contents related to the movement. For example, in the early days of the movement a friend ‘shared’ with me via Facebook a link to a Guardian video report about the Spanish Revolution. The video included footage of a ten-year old boy addressing the crowds gathered at Puerta del Sol in Madrid.  I happen to know the boy and his family, so I sent a link of the video to his mother via email, along with a congratulatory note. I assume that his mother in turn forwarded the hyperlink to friends and family.

To the best of my knowledge, this video did not go viral, but it nevertheless holds special significance for those of us who know the young speaker. It is reasonable to suppose that millions of Spaniards will have likewise shared digital contents related to the 15-M movement that will never enjoy media fame. Yet this long tail of 15-M propaganda (in the neutral sense of propagated contents) is likely to be substantial both in quantity and in its cumulative significance to the niche publics concerned. The fact that millions of people have shared media contents of a political nature is a mass phenomenon worthy of attention, not least on account of the low public visibility of such materials in a digitised culture that celebrates viral ‘hits’.

Sustainable virals

Some years ago, following research among the Iban of Sarawak, in Malaysian Borneo, I coined the term ‘sustainable propaganda’ to refer to those propagated representations that have become ‘part of the culture’ (Postill 2006). For instance, today most rural Sarawakians take for granted the idea that a school education is the key to employment and financial security later in life. This was not always held as a universal truth, but rather was the product of relentless state propaganda through a range of media channels, including radio, television and school textbooks, reinforced by local opinion leaders such as teachers, headmen and priests. This idea ‘stuck’ not only because generations of local people were repeatedly exposed to it , but also because experience taught them that, by and large, the propagandists were right: across Sarawak, a young person’s life chances are greatly enhanced by having acquired literacy and numeracy (Postill 2006).

Of course, 15-M propagandists have had far less time than Malaysia’s politicians to spread their ideals and practices, but some sustainable contents are already in evidence. These include terms such as ’15-M’, indignados, or acampadas (encampments), slogans like ‘Real democracy now!’ and pragmatic devices such as turn-taking by spokespersons (as opposed to leaders) at press conferences and other public presentations.

What are the factors that contribute to the long-term survival of certain items of civic or political propaganda but not others? There is no space here for an extended discussion, but a shortlist would include repeated exposure, timeless relevance, truthfulness, intriguing nature, aesthetic value, opinion leader backing, and cross-media reinforcement. As shown by the Iban example, propaganda is more likely to ‘stick’ when it has demonstrable empirical support, e.g. finding employment after completing school or university, as promised by Malaysia’s state propagandists. Similarly, in the 15-M case the idea that ‘another world is possible’ has been lent support by numerous actions in which ordinary citizens have joined forces to protect vulnerable people from arbitrary abuses of power, their efforts being documented and disseminated via digital media. The status quo may remain in place, but 15-M participants have ample evidence of the emergence of new techno-political practices that presage – or so many intuit – a more truly democratic order.  The oft-heard slogan “Don’t propose, do” captures this attitude.

Another likely factor in the stickiness of a mediated representation is whether or not people find it intriguing. In this regard, it is worth reflecting on the success of ‘Real democracy now!’ as one of the defining slogans of the indignados movement. Although further research is required on this matter, this slogan appears to possess both inherent detachability and reproducibility – to use Spitulnik’s terminology.  Whilst some competing rallying slogans are equally ingenious, it is only ‘Real democracy now!’ that possesses Sperber’s (1996) ‘relevant mystery’ quality, i.e. this is a slogan that invites interrogation whilst eluding any final explanation. During fieldwork I participated in eager discussions about what the notion of ‘real democracy’ actually meant, and on how to go about reaching this ineffable goal. Often criticised for its vagueness, I would agree with its proponents that it is in fact its semantic openness that makes this slogan an ideal motto for a broad-based movement that brings together highly disparate actors from across the ideological spectrum.

A media epidemiographic study of a protest movement would retrace the career of enduring representations through key sites of viral production and dissemination, e.g. campaign meetings, blogs, hashtags, street actions, and so on. It is not sufficient to establish the inherent attractiveness of a popular discursive item, we must also study the techno-political contexts in which it was born and propagated by human agents competing and cooperating to set the movement’s agenda.

Continued here…


[i] See Borge-Holthoefer et al. (2011), European Revolution (2011),  Postill (in press), Rodriguez (2011), and Senabre (2011).

[ii] It is worth noting that Spain’s riot police have often resorted to brutal tactics in order to intimidate protestors into submission, alas to little effect.

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