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Framing Bouazizi (Lim 2013)

March 3, 2014

Lim, M. (2013). Framing Bouazizi: ‘White lies’, hybrid network, and collective/connective action in the 2010–11 Tunisian uprising. Journalism, 14(7), 921-941.


By delving into the detailed account of the Tunisian uprising, this article offers an explanation that sets the 2010 uprising apart from its precursors. The 2010 uprising was successful because activists successfully managed to bridge geographical and class divides as well as to converge offline and online activisms. Such connection and convergence were made possible, first, through the availability of dramatic visual evidence that turned a local incident into a spectacle. Second, by successful frame alignment with a master narrative that culturally and politically resonated with the entire population. Third, by activating a hybrid network made of the connective structures to facilitate collective action – among Tunisians who shared collective identities and collective frames – and connective action – among individuals who sought more personalized paths to contribute to the movement through digital media.


922 Bouazizi was by no means the first Tunisian ‘martyr’. Why did his self-immolation in December 2010 succeed in garnering so much attention and trigger the Tunisian uprising and Arab Spring? ‘How was media used to propel Bouazizi’s death into a large-scale and successful movement?’.

923-926 Section ‘A great disconnect: online activism vs. working-class struggles’. The 2010-2011 uprising in Tunisia rooted in history of online activism and working-class/labour activists.

923 At least a decade of struggle against online censorship. In 1991 Tunisia connected to internet, first Arab country. Publicly available from 1996 but that same year Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI) established. Created ‘the most severe internet censorship in the world’. Activists still used the net for politics, incl. cyber think-tank Takriz created in 1998, or websites like Perspective Tunisiennes in 2000 or TuneZine in 2001. In 2004 political blogs were born, gathered around which became ‘a platform for Tunisian dissident voices and debates’. Many blogs censored, with cyber dissidents and bloggers arrested.

923-924. Despite this vibrancy, online activism didn’t connect with majority of population, with issues of concern to the working class. First attempt at online-offline connection was 22 May 2010 street rally against net censorship. Only hundreds participated.

924 Online activists are mostly well-off, highly educated, urban. Closer to global struggles and platforms like WikiLeaks or Reporters Without Borders than local issues. [see Wolfson 2014 on similar problem in the USA, but contrast this with Postill 2014 on Malaysia]. Thus on 28 November 2010, TuniLeaks launched by, to republish WikiLeaks revelations about Tunisia, ‘only one hour after WikiLeaks’ release of 17 cables that contained information that undermined the Tunisian authorities’.

924-926 For instance Gafsa protests January to June 2008, videos posted on YouTube or DailyMotion never went viral, not even popular with net activists. Al Jazeera didn’t cover Gafsa either because banned from Tunisia, and hadn’t yet started integrating citizen contents into their broadcasts. Activists framed Gafsa as struggles of the poor, unconnected to lives of urban middle classes or to ideas of freedom of expression or anti-censorship. This was to change with the framing of Bouazizi.

926 Bouazizi’s self-immolation often presented as trigger of Tunisian revolution. However, important not the death itself but ‘the framing of the narratives around it’. To mobilise death it must be framed ‘as part of something bigger, beyond the death itself’.

926-927 Unlike previous immolations, this one was video recorded. A distant cousin of the deceased, Ali Bouazizi, ‘a long-time opposition activist’, recorded the death and subsequent protest on his Samsung mobile. With help from a friend, edited content and posted in on Facebook, not blocked in the country (unlike other sites). Images went viral.

However, ‘images alone do not propel a movement’, so Ali fabricated some of the facts, what he calls ‘white lies’, incl. the lie that he was a jobless university graduate having to make do selling produce (in fact, he never completed high school), or the ‘slap in the face’ by a woman in a position of authority (it never happened).

927. By adding these two ingredients – a university graduate and a slap – to the story, Ali rendered Mohamed’s burning body political, affixing to it the political body of a citizen whose rights were denied. Mohamed Bouazizi no longer represented the uneducated poor who struggle to provide food on the table, but represented all young people of Tunisia whose rights and freedom were denied.

928 This was a classic example of ‘frame bridging’ (Snow et al 1986: 467): linking a movement to people with comparable grievances yet ‘structurally disconnected or disengaged’. Leila Ben Debba, a lawyer-turned-activist-leader: “It was a revolution where the young people did not rally for food but for a dignified life”.

928-929 Framing not enough. Protests must be diffused nationally and overseas. Networks must be galvanised, contention turned into a social movement. Social media not sufficient. What achieved this was ‘a hybrid network’ made of social media, big media (eg Al Jazeera) and small media (laptops, sneakers, mobiles, memory cards).

929 Al Jazeera particularly important in that fostered practices of ‘networked journalism’; all sorts of media practitioners interacting. 933 Thus the self-immolation broadcast across Arab world only a few hours after it happened (Al Jazeera reporters had trawled the net in search of materials, finding Ali Bouazizi’s video). After this Al Jazeera kept in touch with ‘citizen journalists on the ground’ incl Ali and a collaborator, both becoming regular contributors. Very few smartphones, but mobiles allowed ordinary people to share news and keep informed.

934 This hybrid media network follows logic of media convergence (Deuze 2006, Jenkins 2004). A govt can shut down a given channel, but not a hybrid media network, for information would still find another route in this ‘redundant and resilient’ network.

936 As citizen journalism was main source of information, Ali Bouazizi’s ‘white lies’ ‘became the master frame’, winning in a ‘frame contest’ among competing frames (Ryan 1991). The result was a united sense of identity and shared injustice between the population and the Ben Ali regime.

937 There was also at work a potent combination of collective action and connective action (more personalised, ‘an act of personal expression [via] trusted relationships [, e.g. via Facebook], Bennett and Segerberg 2012).

937 In conclusion, Tunisian activists managed to bridge the class and geographical divides through three main mechanisms:

1) an archetypal image (the self-immolation) turned from a ‘non-event of the poor’ to a ‘public spectacle’

2) frame alignment via a master frame that appealed to whole society, fostering a sense of injustice and unity

3) activated hybrid media network to attain both collective and connective action.

The Tunisian revolution according to Khosrokhavar (2012)

March 3, 2014

Khosrokhavar, F. (2012). The new Arab revolutions that shook the world. Paradigm Publishers.

Notes on Chapter 2. The Tunisian revolution of dignity and freedom.

p.  28. most unexpected revolution in Arab world, but there were signs in previous protests of what was to come.

There were historical precedents like the Gafsa movement in early 2008, in the Gafsa mineral field, in poor region bordering Algeria.

p. 30 Unlike Jasmine revolution of late 2010, though, in Gafsa the two segments of the population (pro-democracy middle class and the precarious or poor seeking social justice) did not come together.

p. 31 Nevertheless, some lessons were learned in Gafsa that would be applied in 2010: ‘a leaderless social movement, spontaneous riots, a leading role played by the “jobless graduates”, strong backing by young people’.

p. 31. Before that, in October 2005, 18 October Movement for Rights and Freedoms formed out of opposition forces incl. liberals, leftists and Islamists. Unlike the Gafsa and Ben Guerdane movements, which were socio-economic, this was a political platform/movement.

p. 32-35 Tunisian revolution was counterintuitive: happened in seemingly highly stable country, with ‘presidents for life’ (Bourguiba, Ben Ali). Ben Ali stood out among authoritarian regimes for not tolerating any opposition whatsoever.

It was a highly creative revolution in that it combined disparate social forces (the poor and the middle classes) and unified them through new digital media, with Bouazizi’s self-immolation as the trigger. It started in the marginalised regions, derided by the elites as ‘inland Tunisians’ (Nuzuh), where youth joblessness almost double the national average, not in the relatively affluent coastal regions and northeast with 90% of investment.

This case shows it’s not glaring poverty and lack of development that trigger revolutions, but ‘unevenly spread development and a political regime out of touch with real society can’ (p. 34).

p. 35 Compared to Egypt, much more important role of working-class activists, taking on ‘a classical dimension of class antagonism, coupled with a middle-class demand for democracy’.

p. 36-38 The revolutionary imaginary in Tunisia was ‘hectic’, with ‘fanciful, even extravagant interpretation of the facts’ as people caught up in the revolutionary fervour, not unlike the French Revolution of 1789 or the 1979 Iranian revolution. Distorted accounts of Bouzazi’s suicide helped to radicalise the population [see also this blog, Lim 2013].

p. 37 Wikileaks also important in ‘general lack of inhibition towards the Ben Ali regime’. When it revealed – further disseminated by Al Jazeera – that the country was ‘ruled by thugs and Mafia’, revolutionaries were emboldened by the fantasy that America was now on their side.

p. 38 Collective indignation created ‘a collective sense of immunity towards death’.

p. 39 National workers’ union (UGTT) played a key role, but internally riven between central leadership supporting Ben Ali and regional/local levels as well as some subsections such as the teachers’ union. p. 40. Eventually it joined the protest movement following the Kasserine repression. Role of political groups and Islamists was limited. It was trade union, first local and regional levels, then nationally, that was decisive. One could say Tunisia was the Arab Gdansk, in reference to Solidarity movement in 1980s Poland.

p. 41 ‘The Internet, mainly Facebook and Twitter, played a major role in mobilising the youth’. When the govt banned journalists from Sidi Bouzid, the town where Bouazizi killed himself, a group of bloggers (incl 100+ censored in previous months) managed to bypass censorship and relay news of unfolding events in the town. As 1 in 6 Tunisians was using Facebook, the gov was unable to put a stop to it. Even innocuous websites devoted to sport or fashion became politicised. Soon disparate ideologies unified on Facebook around a pro-democracy stance and ‘all of them denounced dictatorship, fraud, and censorship’.

FB crucial role in linking young middle classes in Tunis with trade union movement and organising demos just prior to autocrat’s downfall. When gov tried to suspend use of FB in some regions and penetrate opposition’s pages, Anonymous launched ‘operation Tunisia’ against government websites.

p. 42 Al Jazeera not allowed to open office in Tunisia, but had a big impact by broadcasting cell phone footage of provincial protests by bloggers (as did France 24) and amplifying contents from FB and YouTube. Despite low quality and dubious credentials of a lot of the images they ‘took the risk and broadcast the images’.

Data Havens of Iceland (Part 2)

February 25, 2014

A few days ago I posted a question to Alix Johnson, a PhD student in cultural anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, in the US. According to her Savage Minds interviewer, Adam Fish (read interview here), Alix will be soon travelling to Iceland

to study the practices and discourses of data centers. She studies information infrastructures in capitalist economies and postcolonial politics, and researches these questions in Iceland where they take strange and fascinating forms.

This is the question I put to Alix:

Terrific interview and project, many thanks for posting this. Having worked on Spain’s indignados (15M) movement, I am oddly familiar with the Icelandic ‘revolution’, as it often crops up in Spain as an example to learn from, both politically (e.g. bankers prosecuted) and technologically (e.g. efforts to crowdsource a new constitution [eventually thwarted]). “When we grow up we want to be Icelandic”, was one of the slogans chanted in the occupied squares in 2011.

It’ll be very interesting to read about your findings in due course. It reminds me a little of Thomas H. Eriksen’s current fieldwork on fracking in a Queensland town, in Australia, as part of his comparative project Overheating. One difference here is that instead of studying the local articulations of a global environmental crisis, you are studying the local and national articulations of what we might call a global *information* crisis.

I was wondering what you thought, Alix, about Iceland’s Modern Media Initiative (IMMI) in light of Icelandic Member of Parliament, and IMMI co-founder, Birgitta Jónsdóttir’s bleak outlook on legal initiatives to create data havens given what we now know about the extent of NSA/GCHQ surveillance since the Snowden revelations. Back then, when IMMI was created in 2009, Icelandic information freedom activists were unaware of the scale and reach of US/UK surveillance. I understand that Jónsdóttir herself has run afoul of the NSA. Is IMMI still at the resolution stage? What are its prospects of becoming law?

Fortunately, she has kindly agreed for me to repost her private reply here (thanks, Alix!):

Hi John

Sorry for the slow reply! I missed the cutoff for responding on Savage Minds, but I really appreciate your comment. I know a bit about the 15M movement, but had no idea Iceland was used as a model in this way (or heard that super interesting chant!).

Yes, the last couple years have posed some challenges to IMMI ideals. The case you mention (where Member of Parliament Birgitta Jonsdóttir’s Twitter records were subpoenaed by the U.S.) is definitely one of them. I think for supporters of the “information haven,” though, this just proves the need for the IMMI – Twitter is subpoena-ble because its data and corporate structure are located in the U.S. In the world that IMMI imagines, where local alternatives are developed and hosted in information-friendlier jurisdictions, this dynamic would look very different.

As for IMMI itself, it’s being passed in pieces. Some of its provisions (like source protection) are complete; others (like the Freedom of Information Act) are pending ratification, and still others (like the Icelandic Freedom of Expression Prize) are on hold. Adding a layer of complication, some of its provisions are tied up in Iceland’s new proposed constitution, which itself has been tabled by the new governing coalition. At the same time, the 2013 election brought in three new Pirate Party MPs, who’ve expressed a commitment to seeing it through. So I’m hopeful/interested/anxious to see how it goes [...].

Virtual Worlds vs. Networked Environments: A Question of Method

February 18, 2014

Originally posted on Netnographic Encounters:


A handwritten note announcing the death of a community member, pinned to an outdoor bulletin board. One of many media through which information travels in Indonesian kampung.

I came to realize today, that the applicability of the term “ethnography” or “netnography” to my own research is somewhat limited.  A comical but unsettling story that happened today demonstrated the limits of treating social media like Facebook as social “worlds” to be investigated holistically. It became clear to me that applying ethnography to virtual worlds like Second Life or World of Warcraft (Boellstorff 2008, Nardi 2010) is different from integrating virtuality into ethnography.

Before breakfast today, as on most days, I stopped by the house of a friend and informant, Patricia,* for a chat. After some small talk, Patricia launched into a brief tirade about how rumours, misconstrued as truth, can sometimes lead to uncomfortable situations.  An hour or two before my…

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Data Havens of Iceland (Part 1)

February 18, 2014

Hacker, lawyer, journalist, spy: the field dynamics of techno-political expertise in Spain’s new protest movement

January 28, 2014

John Postill
RMIT University, Melbourne

Talk to the Goldsmiths media ethnography group
Discussant: Veronica Barassi
London, 21 January 2014


In this talk I explore the key role played by computer hackers, online journalists, digital rights lawyers, internet scholars and other techno-political experts in the birth and growth of Spain’s indignados (15M) movement. In contrast to scholars such as Morozov or Gerbaudo, who tend to dismiss such specialists as deluded techno-utopians, I argue that we should take their ideals, practices and actions very seriously indeed, as the global impact of the Snowden/Greenwald NSA revelations once again confirms. Applying an upgraded version of field theory (Postill in press, Fligstein and McAdam 2012) to the Spanish materials, I focus on the intra- and inter-field dynamics of expertise in the current remaking of Spain’s indignados protest field by means of three case studies: Partido X, 15MPaRato and PAH. One intriguing question arising from the preliminary research is how protest field incumbents manage the tension between an earlier discourse around the collective intelligence of ‘networked swarms’ and a more recent emphasis on the importance of techno-political expertise to the ‘resetting’ (resetear) of Spain’s political system.

Presentation notes

Let me frame this talk by breaking up its very long title into three ideas that I want to put into conversation with one another:

1. Spain’s new protest movement, 2010-2014 (i.e. indignados/15M)

2. Field dynamics (post-Bourdieu)

3. Techno-political expertise (hacker, lawyer, journalist, spy)

Spain’s new protest movement, 2010-2014

In 2010-2011 I was conducting anthropological fieldwork in Barcelona. I was based at IN3, an internet research centre within Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) set up by Manuel Castells. I was very fortunate to be there when a coalition of new citizens’ platforms (including NoLesVotes, Democracia Real Ya, Juventud Sin Futuro) was formed to launch a day of protest across Spain on 15 May 2011. Some of their more influential participants passed through IN3 at some point or other, and I also found them all gathered around Twitter hashtags as the preparations gathered momentum.

The 15 May marches turned into Tahrir-inspired square occupations (May-June 2011) and the indignados or 15M movement was born. Some indignados went on to co-create the Occupy movement in the US and beyond from September 2011.

What is often lost in the media accounts and popular imaginings of 15M was just how steeped in internet freedom/hacker culture ideals and practices this movement is (Postill 2013).

Although 15M has enjoyed sustained rates of approval from the Spanish population since its inception, by the end of 2011 it was clear to many of its unofficial leaders (leadership is a problematic notion among most 15Mers) that the movement would have to find ways of engaging with the country’s political institutions. As one research participant told me not long ago, surrounding Parliament is no good – you’ve got to occupy it.

One notable exception to this general lack of institutional engagement is PAH (Mortgage Victims’ Platform), a group that has scored a series of PR goals through its savvy combination of techno-political methods across the mainstream media vs. alternative/social media divide.

More recently, a number of new citizens’ parties have appeared (such as Partido X, Podemos, EnRed) that are gearing up for the European elections to be held in May 2014. These new formations are all internet and/or media savvy, and it is said that some of their methods are being ‘borrowed’ by older, more conventionally political parties such as Ciutadans.

Field dynamics (post-Bourdieu)

How can we understand Spain’s indignados/15M movement and similar waves of protest around the world in the wake of the Tunisian uprising of Dec 2010? A number of explanations have been offered, including political economy (Mason, Tejerina et al), social media to choreograph collective action (Gerbaudo), a new logic of aggregation (Juris), unstoppable information/action cascades (Tufekci), and the network society (Castells).

They all have something to teach us but my own approach builds on previous work on field theory, both mine and other people’s. Bourdieu holds no monopoly over this theory. We need a dynamic field theory fit for the 21st century.

1. Fligstein/McAdam (2011, 2012) – grand American sociological synthesis of field theory, institutional politics, social movements theory, the sociology of markets; for these authors all sorts of social formations – incl. political parties, organisations, departments, states, markets, social movements – can be understood as fields of strategic action (FSA), i.e. domains of endeavour in which variously positioned social agents struggle over an issue, cause or resource. All such fields will have their incumbents and challengers, internal governance units (usu. close to or run by the incumbents), external certifying bodies (usu. the state), inter-field dynamics, unevenly spread social skills, vertical or horizontal/coalitional relations. Abrupt change can originate within the FSA but often it comes after an external shock (invasion, economic collapse, hostile takeover, war, natural disaster), as incumbents are generally very skilled at maintaining the status quo. By contrast, ‘piecemeal change’ happens all the time, usually through the dynamic interaction of incumbents and challengers.

2. Postill (2011, in press). Via a very different route (British social anthropology with fieldwork in Malaysia and Spain) I have arrived at a strikingly similar, post-Bourdieu model of fields as domains of action (or endeavour) as Fligstein/McAdam. I’m currently beginning to integrate the two theories into a single, more robust (I hope) theory of protests as fields. One significant difference between us is that media and communication, esp. the internet, are central to my model, whereas these authors only discuss media and communication technologies in passing. Another difference is that I draw from the Manchester School of anthropology (Gluckman, Epstein, Turner, etc) for my field theory. These anthropologists encountered conditions of rapid social change in Southern Africa in the 1940s and 1950s, and came up with new concepts (field, network, social drama, arena…) to make sense of these fluid actualities on the ground. In my version of field theory, some fields can – under certain conditions – expand and contract very rapidly. To put it in media epidemiographic terms (Postill 2014), some fields of strategic action can in fact ‘go viral’, as I experienced firsthand in Spain in May 2011 with the explosive growth of the indignados FSA from several thousand enthusiasts to millions of new recruits through both offline and online means in a matter of days. In my theory, field sites come in two main varieties: stations (sites of field reproduction) and arenas (sites of field change). These are not necessarily fixed, some stations can morph into arenas for a period of time and then revert to being stations – or disappear. Fields exhibit a plurality of socialities, indeed every field site has its own unique admixture of socio-technical practices that give it a characteristic feel – which the ethnographer can report, e.g. in the field of residential politics in Subang Jaya (Malaysia), the sociality of a residents’ committee is very different from that of a neighbourhood patrol or an online forum. Careful attention to plural socialities allows us to go beyond reductionist mappings of social morphology based on one or two vague metaphors such as ‘community’ and ‘network’ (Postill 2008, 2011).

Techno-political expertise (hacker, lawyer, journalist, spy)

In his ongoing Overheating research project, the anthropologist Thomas H. Eriksen writes about the three global crises unleashed upon the world in the 1989-1991 period of geopolitical and technological change: financial/economic, climate/environmental, identity/cultural.

I would add a fourth crisis, a global information crisis, most visibly epitomised by the release of over 200,000 US State Dept cables by Wikileaks and partner media organisations in November 2010, and at present by the repercussions of Snowden’s NSA revelations in partnership with the Guardian. There is a protracted global conflict under way over internet governance, freedom of information, open access, and related issues, a conflict involving not just renowned computer specialists such as Assange, Manning, Swartz or Snowden, but also growing numbers of journalists, bloggers, lawyers, spies, artists, intellectuals, social scientists, students and others – some are well known in their own countries or internationally, others operate behind the scenes. In addition to these individual techno-political agents there are collective agents (groups, organisations, markets, etc.) involved in this multi-faceted struggle, inclusing the NSA, GCHQ, CIA, the Guardian, NYT, Electronic Frontier Foundation, etc, fighting on numerous fronts.

From 2009 this struggle has become increasingly entangled with broader national struggles over democratic freedoms and social justice, as we saw in Iceland in 2009, Tunisia 2010, Egypt 2011, Spain 2011, the US 2011, etc (Postill 2013). A number of questions arise: Who are they key individual and collective players involved in these techno-political contests (techno-political in the sense of social agents who mix their technology with their politics)? What kinds of techno-political expertise are they deploying, sharing, challenging, countering, in their social practices and collective actions? With what social and political consequences, if any?

Some examples from Spain:

Partido X-Red Ciudadana: A citizens’ initiative (or network) steeped in Spain’s internet freedom/free culture and 15M movements. Set up in early 2012. Distinguishes three main categories of contribution to the network: as participants, experts or citizens. By analogy to hacker culture, the emphasis is on doing, not talking (Linus’ famous “Talk is cheap. Show me the code”). This is a ‘doocracy’ (hacercracia). For instance, the network uses standard web forum software for one of its main collaborative spaces but they avoid the term ‘forum’ so that participants know that they’re there to work, not to chat. Instead they call this space the Nexus (el Nexo). Although proud of their 15M/indignados heritage, they distinguish themselves from 15M by insisting that they are not a ‘horizontal’ or ‘assemblary’ network. They are not a conventional political party either, for like free software groups, a meritocracy in which hard work and peer recognition is what will get you up the ranks, not top-down appointments or party discipline.

Partido X members say their initiative is not for everybody, only for the like-minded (ser afines al proyecto). We could say it is an ‘affinity space’ (Gee 2005) with various routes of participation and forms of expertise (technical, political, medial…) available to those keen and able to be part of it. There is also a filtering process at work both online and offline – the network’s boundaries are carefully monitored, with notable success to date. From what we might call a field virality perspective (see above), Partido X participants want to avoid the uncontrolled viral spread of the movement. Some of them learned their viral lesson during their involvement with Democracia Real Ya (DRY), the platform that coordinated the 15 May marches but was overwhelmed by 15M’s explosive growth following the spontaneous square occupations from 16 May onwards. One the party’s biggest challenges is how to break into the mainstream media, especially now that they are preparing for the coming European elections in May 2014. Its indignados hostility to personality politics (personalismos) is arguably at odd with the logics of institutional politics in the TV age (let’s not forget that the ‘old’ medium of TV is still going strong around the world, not least in Spain). This challenge was brought into sharp relief last week when a rival indignados party, Podemos (We Can), was launched by the political scientist and charismatic TV personality Pablo Iglesias.

15MPaRato: An earlier, and more tightly focused, field of strategic action (FSA) than Partido X, albeit with a big overlap in its leading personnel and spirit. In May 2012, this political prototype raised 15,000 euros within 24 hours though a crowdfunding appeal aimed at initiating legal proceedings against Rodrigo Rato, the former chief executive of Bankia. The disgraced bank had requested from the Spanish government a €19 billion bailout (15MPaRato 2013, Oliden et al 2013). As a result of the successful crowdfunding, in December 2012 Rato appeared in court to face a string of charges, including fraud and embezzlement (BBC 2012). The internet scholar Ismael Peña Lopez (2012a) highlights the innovative manner in which this new platform raised public awareness about the issue, set the public agenda, filled a void left by political parties and MPs, and used crowdfunding to pay for the court fees and crowdsourcing to gather evidence against Rato. Why did it succeed? Peña Lopez (2012b) singles out five main factors (which I would suggest capture some of 15M’s free culture strengths more generally), namely:

  1. 15M’s ‘powerful, versatile brand’ functioning as an ‘umbrella’.
  2. A ‘concrete, current, short-term objective’
  3. A highly flexible, agile networked organisation, in which numerous actors define themselves around their actions, not their identities or offices.
  4. The project was broken down into micro-tasks, an approach inspired by the ‘hacker ethic’ of free software (Benkler 2006, Raymond 1999)
  5. Intensive use of cheap, user-friendly, decentralised technological infrastructures.

From a field theoretical viewpoint, it would be interesting to investigate the inter-field dynamics existing between this initiative and Partido X, given their close ties and overlaps. What part do various forms of techno-political expertise play in these dynamics? With what effects for both organisations and for Spain’s broader political system?

Mortgage Victims’ Platform (PAH). Like Podemos, this platform has a highly visible, charismatic leader in Ada Colau, an experienced Barcelona activist that comes from previous struggles against corporate globalisation and the right to housing. Although PAH predates the 15M movement, the two have developed a symbiotic relationship over the years – ‘a perfect marriage’ – as one of its members put it. PAH has both an active social media and mainstream media presence, and many Spaniards recall Colau’s spirited defence of mortgage victims during a guest intervention in the Spanish Parliament. Widely regarded as a ‘born politician’ and astute media personality, she has so far managed to resist the advances of party political suitors to concentrate on the single issue of a fair treatment for countless Spanish families unable to keep up with their mortgage payments following the collapse of the property market in 2008. Through a savvy combination of direct actions (escraches) and the cultivation of public relations with opposition politicians and the media, PAH has managed to break with Spain’s ‘deep-rooted tendency toward a lack of interaction between protest movements and institutional actors’ (Romanos 2013: 1).


In the current global information crisis, growing numbers of individual and collective actors have got entangled with (trans)national struggles for real democracy and social justice. Countless fields of strategic action (organisations, parties, markets, states, lobbies) are now part of this web of competition and cooperation over a wide range of issues in which the political and the technological are inextricably tied, from the struggle for and against open access and freedom of speech to wealth redistribution and fair elections. Indeed this gigantic web itself can be regarded as a field of strategic action (FAS) with its own incumbents and challengers, internal government  units, stations and arenas, communicative ecology, and so on.

In this talk I took Spain as the case study. I argued that techno-political expertise is increasingly being mobilised – both publicly and privately – to turn Spanish citizens’ indignation into new forms of institutional politics rooted in contentious politics. Take, for example, the high prominence given by Partido X to Herve Falciani, the HSBC Private Bank systems engineer famous for releasing information about 130,000 alleged tax evaders. Falciani has been collaborating with Partido X’s anti-corruption committee since November 2013 and will be present at a number of public events as the party prepares its candidature to the May 2014 European elections. Far from being dismissive of these efforts for their alleged digital utopianism or techno-libertarianism, I have suggested that we need to take them very seriously indeed, for they are already having an impact on the reconfiguration of citizenship in Spain (and elsewhere).

These initiatives face, nonetheless, considerable challenges, including how to acquire a strong mainstream media presence for electoral projects that play down personality politics (media organisations that are, in any case, closely tied to Spain’s ruling classes), or how to manage the growth of citizens’ networks in an age of ‘viral reality’ (Postill 2014) in which not only digital contents but also groups and organisations can ‘go viral’ at a moment’s notice.


Unfortunately I haven’t got the time here to do justice to Veronica Barassi’s discussants’ comments or to the subsequent, and lively, Q&A with the Goldsmiths audience. But at least I can enumerate some of the issues raised by my talk:

  1. potential methodological pitfalls of notion of techno-political expertise
  2. danger of methodological individualism when focusing on experts
  3. Eurocentrism of these notions? what can we expect to find in non-Western contexts?
  4. how new is this ‘new’ protest movement you describe?
  5. the logic of connective action
  6. to what extent have these techno-political activists internalised technocratic, neoliberal notions without being aware of it?
  7. how do you distinguish ethnographically one field from another, in all their multiplicity?
  8. the transnational dimension of these fields of strategic action
  9. nerd politics, India’s anti-corruption movement and Indian diaspora in Silicon Valley
  10. how to handle the different levels of analysis, esp. with huge media events like the square occupations in Spain

Digital ethnography and the global information crisis: theories, methods, publics

January 25, 2014

John Postill
Digital Ethnography Research Centre
RMIT Melbourne, Australia

Presentation notes, incl. Q&A
Oxford Digital Ethnography group (OxDEG)
Oxford Internet Institute (OII)
University of Oxford
22 Jan 2014

Many thanks to Shireen Walton and the rest of the Oxford Digital Ethnography group for the invitation. It’s great to be here for your first meeting of the term.

After I corresponded with Shireen over email about the focus of this talk, I couldn’t quite decide whether to focus on my experience with digital ethnography theories, methods or publics. So I’ve decided to do all three, and connect them to an idea that’s been on my mind for a while, namely that over the past few years we have entered a global information crisis.

A global crisis and us

Thomas H. Eriksen: The three crises of globalisation: An anthropological history of the early 21st century. The period examined by the project, the present era, begins

with the discontinuities of 1989–91 – the coming of the Internet and mobile phones, the breakup of Yugoslavia, the end of the Cold War and the end of apartheid; and the project amounts to a globally comparative investigation of the converging crises of the 21st century – finance/economy, climate/environment, culture/identity – as perceived from local vantage points.

I would add a fourth converging crisis: a global information crisis tied precisely to ‘the coming of the Internet and mobile phones’. A protracted struggle over future governance of internet pitting ‘information activists’ against powerful govs and corps (Brooke 2011).

I became acutely aware of this crisis in November 2010. A month earlier, in Barcelona, I had met the Icelandic information activist Smari McCarthy at the Free Culture Forum, an international gathering of people interested in digital freedom issues, where we talked briefly about how all systems – including political systems – can be hacked, i.e. changed. We also talked  about the anthropological aversion to notions such as structure or system and our post-structuralist preference for the notion of practices – which I find problematic (Postill 2010).

What I didn’t know at the time was McCarthy’s involvement in Icelandic techno-politics along with fellow Icelanders from the Modern Media Initiative (MMI) as well as the leaders of Wikileaks, led to changes in the country’s media legislation.

Then in Nov 2010 US State Dept cables released by Wikileaks with mainstream media partners (Guardian, NYT, El Pais, Le Monde) had impact around the world, including Tunisia and Egypt. When Paypal, Mastercard, etc. stopped donations to Wikileaks under US gov pressure, Anonymous launched DDOS attacks against them. Anonymous also got involved in nascent Arab uprisings.

In Spain, where I was doing fieldwork at the time, State Dept leaks confirmed information activists’ suspicions that the US embassy in Madrid had practically drafted the new proposed anti-digital piracy bill, Ley Sinde. When the Spanish gov went ahead and passed the bill despite a massive online mobilisation, in early 2011 leading Spanish netizens created NoLesVotes – don’t vote for them – which joined forces with other platforms to organise 15 May 2011 marches across the country, followed by  month-long square occupations. This was the birth of the indignados (15M) movement.

In turn, 15M had a direct input on the creation of Occupy Wall Street movement Sep that year, which then became the global Occupy movement Oct 2011.

Boomerang effect: US gov reaction to the leaks in 2010 eventually came back home to America the following year through a wave of protests against the political class and the 1%.

More recently Snowden and Guardian NSA revelations.

But global information crisis reaches far wider and deeper than the work of famous hackers and whistleblowers. It is also inside highered, in academia. Take the case of the late Aaron Swartz (MIT), who committed suicide when faced with the very real possibility of a jail term for downloading millions of academic documents. As the Leaksource website put it:

“…Aaron sought to liberate millions of JSTOR documents from their vaults into the archives of the internet as a product of Open Access. […] Aaron was seeking a new age of enlightenment through Open Access. Simply put, Aaron wanted as we all do, Freedom of Information.”

Or think about the so-called ‘Academic Spring’ around boycotting the publishing house Elsevier, or more recently the successful pressure from Elsevier on to take down copyrighted articles.

Open/free culture movement no longer of geeks and other computer nerds. The mainstreaming of nerd politics reaches the whole of academia, not just those fields more closely concerned with issues of internet freedom, open access, and so on.

Whether we like it or not, we digital ethnographers are in the thick of it – the thick of the global information crisis. What can we digital ethnographers contribute towards resolving this complex, multi-faceted crisis? Three things, in my view: theories, methods and publics.

I will discuss them briefly on the basis of my own experience, but I look forward to hearing about your own experiences and reflections, both individual and collective, as an emergent digital ethnography group.


My digital ethnography strategy since around 2002 has been the classic Manchester School of Anthropology strategy of ‘following the action’ (or the conflict), starting in suburban Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) in 2003-2009 and more recently in Barcelona (Catalonia/Spain) since 2010 – and now I’m about to resume this line of work in urban Indonesia.

Ground-up theorising post-fieldwork rather than arriving with a theoretical framework (Postill 2012), to the incomprehension of colleagues in other fields, e.g. Nordic PhD political science candidate I met in Malaysia shocked about my loose handling of the concept and theory of ‘governance’.

-       What d’you mean you haven’t got a definition of governance? How can you study something you haven’t theorised beforehand?

-       Erm, I don’t know, it’s just a term that some people use here, especially government technocrats. I’m trying to get the local perspective, ideas and issues that matter to my research participants.

Of course, when you enter a field site you simultaneously enter a specialist literature, in my case Internet Studies as it was back in 2003. Every field has its paradigmatic theories and metaphors. Internet Studies is no exception: community (esp. online or virtual community) and network (esp. network society, social networks) were then – and still are – some of its preferred metaphors (Postill 2012).

Although I went to Subang Jaya – a middle-class suburb of KL, in Malaysia – to study e-government, by ‘following the conflict’ I ended up focussing on local forms of internet activism.

Back in the UK, on my first attempt at theorising suburban internet politics I fell right into the community/network trap. I managed to get out of the hole through conceptual work on notions such as field of residential affairs, internet drama, field arena, field station, etc. This led to theory of internet localisation – in some ways the internet becoming ‘more local’ (Postill 2011).

Have developed this further in Spanish work on indignados/15M, now adding other working concepts such as techno-politics of citizenship, mainstreaming of nerd politics, viral reality, media epidemiography, working the algorithm, and other notions, as well as from other authors such as Chadwick’s (2013) ‘hybrid media system’.

Through very different routes (US sociology in America vs. UK social anthropology in M’sia and Spain) Fligstein/McAdam (2012) and I have ended up with similar theories of the field of action, see their Theory of Fields, FSA (fields of strategic action): challengers vs. incumbents, internal governance units, external shocks, inter-field dynamics…

At the moment I’m trying to scale up my internet politics theory to national and global level. What would happened if we regarded  the global information crisis as an FSA with information field incumbents (US-UK intelligence, China gov, giant corps like Google, FB) fending off individual and collective challengers like Assange, Snowden, the Guardian, the P2P Foundation, Spain’s 15M movement, with the rest of us not quite knowing what to make of it – or do about it.


Elsewhere I have written about various methodological aspects of my research, it’s all on my blog and Academia page, free of charge, e.g. article with Sarah Pink on social media ethnography, or article in press on what I call media epidemiography, i.e. the ethnographic study of digital virality (incl. viral epidemics), or forthcoming book chapter on the multilinear temporality of protest (events, trends, routines, see Sewell 2005).

Here I’d like to explore the question of ‘being there’. Being there is a sine qua non of ethnographic research since Malinowski’s fieldwork revolution (Geertz 1988). But what does it mean today, in 2014, with the huge range of digital media options available to ethnographers – especially for those working among the urban Technorati in places like Barcelona?

In digital/media anthropology we are fond of telling ourselves a tale of methodological progress. Once upon a time we lived in the bad old days of cyberspace (as a realm apart from ‘real life’). Luckily with  the new millennium it dawned on us that the internet is not apart from but rather a part of everyday life – a moment captured by Miller and Slater’s 2000 book The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach. This appeared to put paid to the idea, once and for all, that it makes any sense to separate the online from the offline. We now knew, or so we thought, the two are inextricably entwined.

Alas a few years later, Tom Boellstorff came along to unsettle this consensus by doing an ethnographic study entirely online, Coming of Age in Second Life (2008). Boellstorff demonstrated that it is in fact possible to ‘be there’ ethnographically, among residents of a virtual place, aka avatars. Of course, not all of us must or wish to conduct all our fieldwork online, but this anthropologist demonstrated that it is possible to do so.

This is all very well, but we are still left with the problem of how to move on from our perpetual fixation with the online vs. offline binary. Here I’d like to suggest that we do so but looking more closely at what we mean today, in 2014, by ‘being there’, in the field.

But of course, partly thanks to digital technologies, we now know there are many ways of being there, in the field, including:

  1. Co-presently, physically
  2. Remotely, e.g. via streaming, Skype, Twitter, TV (live or archived) – we need to reinstate the old 20th century notion of tele-communication, tele-presence, telematics, etc.
  3. Virtually, i.e. via a ‘third place’ e.g. via listserv, web forum, Second Life, Facebook thread (live or archived)
  4. Imaginately, e.g. via recollections on blog, social media (live or archived)

All these different modes of presence/absence entail a trade-off, and I suspect most of us switch and mix among these modalities in the course of our ethnographic research – often without even reflecting on it, for we’re getting on with the business of doing the research. In other words, this mixing and switching in our ways of being there has become almost fully naturalised.

We need to leave behind the assumption that unmediated physical co-presence is inherently superior to other forms of being there. In fact, sometimes we learn more from the comfort of your home thousands of miles away than if you had been there, e.g. redada meeting in Spain I followed via streaming and Twitter from the UK.

During my Malaysian fieldwork I sometimes had to ‘commute’ to the UK and I found that I could participate more actively in local life from there – via the local web forum – than when I was physically in Subang Jaya, where I was often too busy chasing my ‘key informants’ to be able to spend long hours online!

Last week during fieldwork in Barcelona, I was amazed once again at how much information I could find online about people I was about to interview or hang out with.

In my ethnographic work I seek to triangulate from a wide range of sources – both digital and analogue  – as I follow and reconstruct a techno-political process, e.g. the gestation and birth of the indignados movement in Spain, or the unfolding of a local protest in Malaysia.

There is a catch, however.  Digital ethnography is so rich an experience, and so enriching that like other knowledge workers we find it very difficult to switch off, esp. to go offline. Always temptation to catch up, look things up, ‘share’ stuff, self-promote… (Postill and Pink 2012)

To paraphrase Tony Blair, we must be tough on time, tough on the causes of time (wasting). In other words, we must reclaim our offline time.

I try to do so, with uneven success, through the little square method: blocking off whole chunks of time, wherever possible four hours in the morning, by drawing a little square on my non-digital diary (well OK now I do it on Google Calendar).

That’s me-time, offline time. To write. If I need to look something up, I look it up on my very own MWW (Mind Wide Web). Using a keyboard is OK, as long as you’re offline, but pen and paper is better (see Tim Ingold on writing by hand). Occasionally, though all too rarely, I even go off to a cabin in the middle of nowhere – a man-cave with no wifi – in order to write. If you can’t remember something you leave a blank, look it up later. We don’t need to have ready access to Google all the time.


Just as many of our research participants are now leaving an ever greater digital trail in their wake, so do we ethnographers. In our case, a research/public scholarship trail – the two activities becoming increasingly hard to tell apart.

My own public presence: mailing list, blog, Twitter, Facebook (see Postill forthcoming), nowadays (more on this platform shortly). Each with its own limits and possibilities for public scholarship.

Lately I have found that Twitter has got a lot more interesting in this regard, e.g. conversations about what to call people who love to mix their technology with their politics, about sociological theory (which led to the discovery for me of Fligstein and McAdam), about the meaning of digital activism, etc.

Many of us digital ethnographers are, I suspect, content hoarders. And we’re always convinced that there’s a technical fix just round the corner for all our hoarding needs. Some people swear by Mendeley, others love Delicious, still others are Evernoters. For me first it was the bibliographic software ProCite, back in the 1990s, then it was Mendeley (for a short while), then my blog, then Delicious, now

At the moment I’m struggling with archival tension between Scoop.It (public, self-promotion) and archiving PDFs in old-fashioned directory (private). Incredibly useful to carry a laptop full of PDFs to read and highlight as a new writing deadline approaches. No wifi required. On the other hand, is good as a public resource as well as putting your name out there as an expert in that topic. If introduced an automatic way of turning your bookmarked/Scooped pages onto PDFs, I would be sign up to it straight away.

The truth is there will never be a one-stop solution to our all too human scholarly urge to hoard stuff, in this day and age to hoard digital contents. People change, and so do technologies. Perhaps we should try to hoard less, be more selective? And worry less about losing that vital piece of information on which our entire career depends?


To recap: I have discussed the global information crisis and digital ethnography through examples from my own work on digital media and activism over the past 12 years or so.

Whether we like it or not, we digital ethnographers are in the thick of this crisis. For me there were two moments of realisation:

(a)  seeing the information activists in that TV documentary discussing Iceland’s ‘information famine’ and how Wikileaks got involved in national crisis, leading to new information freedom legislation.

(b)  joining a mass of highly diverse occupiers of Placa de Catalunya (Barcelona) having following the build-up to 15M marches through ethnographic research – with key role played by internet freedom fighters.

We digital ethnographers can contribute theories, methods and publics to the ongoing struggle over greater informational and democratic freedoms.

Theoretically, as digital ethnographers we can help to broaden the existing conceptual vocabulary, especially at the intersection of the social and the technological, so that we can move beyond the current reliance on a handful of favourite metaphors such as community, network or public sphere. For example, through plural socialities idea: the quality of social intercourse on a Twitter hashtag advocating digital freedom is different from that in a private offline meeting – the community/network pairing can be of little help here.

Methodologically, we can ‘follow the information conflict’ and its wider ramifications, incl. how they became entangled in broader struggles over democracy, accountability, corruption, etc, by ‘being there’ remotely or in person, live or after the fact, and then weave thick ethnographic accounts that pay attention to the multiple ways in which both us and our research participants made it there – to that particular field site.

Publicly, we can continue to co-create with colleagues, students, online journalists, information activists and other research participants new forms of public engagement across sites. The challenge, in my experience, is how to fight the tendency to hoard contents onto a single platform that we hope will solve all our problems with information dispersal.

But perhaps the biggest challenge, and we’re not alone here, is how to resist the urge to be constantly online. My conclusion is that that we should spend more time in our very own MindWideWeb (MWW), with the sole aid of pen and paper. Easier said than done, no doubt.

Thank you.


(Disclaimer – these notes may not be accurate, apologies for any errors)

1. How are  you defining ‘global information crisis’? Why not ‘information war’ (another term you used)?

Erm, I’m still working on this notion, early days. Partly to blame, as it were, is Thomas H. Eriksen’s model of the 3 global crises (economic, environmental, cultural) that I started with, adding that there is a fourth global crisis to consider, an information crisis that took global centre stage (for a while) in November 2010 with the release by Wikileaks and its partner media organisations (Guardian, NYT, El Pais, Le Monde, etc) of thousands of US State Dept diplomatic cables.

Besides, the notion of Information War (Brooke 2011), has too much of a hyperbolic, ‘cyberwar’ ring to it when in fact the phenomenon I’m referring to is more heterogeneous, ranging from Anonymous DDOS, to Wikileaks releases of cables, to the ‘academic spring’ over open access, etc. But I definitely need to think more about it.

[Post-seminar update: Perhaps it's worth asking who the parties are to the current international struggle over the future of digital information are by taking self-ascribed 'information activists' as our guides into this struggle. In my research so far I have found five fields to be particularly embroiled in these struggles: computing (hacking), law, journalism, intelligence and academia. Again, this is a work in progress].

2. How do we avoid in our ethnographic accounts conflating two different forms of access to field situations, namely archival (retrospective) and in real time (lived experience)?

As ethnographers we often weave into our accounts both forms, I don’t see this as being a big problem. That said, perhaps we should be more explicit in our methodological sections/chapters about these differences.

3.  I find screenshots to be a very useful way of stringing together a rapidly unfolding event (comment).

4.  You said we should move on from the offline vs. online binary but I still find it useful. For instance, my research participants in [country X] are very different online (on Facebook) and offline.

I may have been unclear when I talked about this question earlier. What I meant to say is that we need a richer set of concepts around this area, go beyond our excessive attention to the online vs. offline quandary. That’s why I introduced distinctions in the way ethnographers are ‘being there’ in the field: physically, remotely, virtually, imaginatively… (and in all cases either in real time or retrospectively, through recorded or archived digital materials).

5. The video clip you showed [about Wikileaks' intervention in Iceland's banking crisis, 2009] didn’t quite fit in with the idea of a global information crisis. The information was available. There was no ‘information famine’ [as claimed by an Icelandic activist]. Something else must have been going on, perhaps to do with trust/mental models…

Yes, that’s a very good point. A few months ago I started thinking about what information is already available online about ‘the 1%’ and there’s much more out there than one would think. It’s a matter of having the motivation and time to dig it up. The rich and powerful also use social and public media, they too leave a trail of information – and there is no shortage of leaks, either (Postill 2013).

[End of notes. NB there were more questions/comments, but it's late and I've run out of steam. Sorry. Many thanks to the seminar organisers and participants].














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