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Democracy in the age of viral reality (4)

November 15, 2011

Continued from Democracy in the age of viral reality (3)

Distributed democracy

What are the implications for the future of representative democracy of the 15-M movement – and indeed of indignados and occupy movements in other countries? For the social movements scholar Donatella della Porta (2011) the answer lies with the deliberative (or consensus) democracy experiments currently being conducted by Spain’s protesters:

This conception of democracy is prefigured by the very same indignados that occupy city squares, transforming them into public spheres made up of ‘normal citizens’. It is an attempt to create high quality discursive democracy, recognising the equal rights of all (not only delegates and experts) to speak (and to be respected) in a public and plural space, open to discussion and deliberation …

This is an intriguing remark about the democratic possibilities opened up by the indignados’ public assemblies. However, there is more to the 15-M movement than this Habermasian portrait. In this blog post I draw from participants’ own views on the movement in order to suggest that the democratic potential of the movement lies both in its deliberative and in its distributed (or viral) nature. So to keywords such as Tahrir, popular assembly, consensus, or deliberative democracy I would add Iceland, wiki, copy-paste-modify-share, work in progress, democracy 2.0 and distributed democracy. In other words, I am suggesting that Spain’s indignados are collectively ‘hacking’ their democracy, and that virally distributed practices and contents are integral to this process.

To be sure, Egypt’s Tahrir Square was greatly inspiring to Spain’s demonstrators. Yet when envisioning a more hopeful future 15-M activists look North – not towards Bonn, Paris or Brussels as a previous Spanish generation did, but rather to Reykjavik. Iceland is widely regarded as having set an example when popular mobilisations in 2009 led to the dissolution of Parliament and fresh elections, after a financial collapse that citizens blamed on their politicians and bankers. Icelanders’ current use of Facebook and other web platforms to ‘crowdsource’ a new Constitution is now being emulated by 15-M supporters in Spain. ‘When we grow up we want to be Icelandic!’ was one of the slogans chanted by demonstrators (Seco 2011).

Both the Internet and the square are central tropes in the 15-M imaginary. Participants reject any separation between online and offline, or between the digital and the analogic. They see these two spheres as mutually constitutive and emphasise the ‘horizontal’ nature of communicative flows across internet and co-present spaces. To expand an earlier quote from two activists:

The face-to-face assemblies at each of the encampments are essential. Not only for logistical reasons but because within them, through the committees, both daily and mid-term plans are laid out. They are primarily a massive, transparent exercise in direct democracy. Yet the direction (el sentit) is created mostly on Twitter. Hashtags serve not only to organise the debate but also to set the collective mood (@galapita and @hibai 2011).

These participants stress the importance of Twitter to democratic participation across a flattened media terrain in which ‘politicisation is omnipresent’ (@zzzinc 2011). Borrowing from the subculture of free software, influential activists promote a non-ideological, pragmatic approach to sharing, improving and propagating the movement. In this hacker spirit, citizens are encouraged to participate through whichever technologies and activities suit their interests and capabilities, including corporate viral media such as Facebook or Twitter:

Using the #15M hashtag, helping to make it into a TT [a trending topic on Twitter], or becoming a fan of a Facebook page all contribute to different users feeling the commons, [thus] breaking the networked isolation and organising the discontent in the public sphere, both virtual and analogic… We feel part of the movement because we contribute to creating it, spreading it, growing it; Internet user and indignado are one and the same person (@galapita and @hibai 2011)

Responding to what they regard as the popular misconception that social media trivialise political activism, these activists argue that the explosion of user-generated contents around the 15-M movement cannot be dismissed as mere ‘noise’. Rather it is a way of breaking mainstream media’s hegemony over the power to communicate (@galapita and @hibai 2011). Participants often employ epidemiological metaphors such as ‘viral’, ‘contagion’, ‘infection’ or ‘meme’ – many originating in digital culture (see Senabre 2011). Thus in a late August 2011 retweet about the planned 15 October protests, a DRY coordinator wrote: ‘#15o infects [contagia] and proliferates a global effect of solidarity, justice, dignity and freedom’. Around the same time, a fellow DRY activist tweeted: “Viral action to 83 members of #parliament: 30,936 tweets saying #iwanttovote and 23,792 with #referendum Let’s send more”.

15-M activists inhabit a dynamic media ecology in which their digital paths frequently cross those of journalists, politicians, intellectuals and other public figures, with Twitter as the central arena. Two September 2011 tweets by the US journalist @JeffSharlet aimed at New York City indignados refer to a different local struggle, but they capture well the symbiotic relationship between mainstream journalists and 15-M activists, including its viral nature:

  1. Reporters aren’t conspiratorial, #takewallstreet, they’re lazy. Make them–and us–talk about you. Don’t be prima donnas.
  2. I love u, #takewallstreet, but quit yr “media blackout” gripes. Instead, make media. Tweet worth retweeting. Viral some vids. Tell stories.

Continued here…

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