Social media activism in Barcelona – a few questions
In recent years millions of ordinary people in the global North have joined in the explosive growth of social media. These can be described as user-driven Web media where people create, mix and share all manner of digital contents. Although the interdisciplinary literature on social media is currently bourgeoning (see Boyd and Ellison 2007, Ellison et al 2009, Gilbert et al 2008, Ryan 2008), one relatively neglected area is the uses of social media for advocacy, campaigning and activism. Recent examples that have attracted the attention of the news media include the use of blogs and mobile devices in Barak Obama’s presidential campaign (Graff 2007), the reliance on Twitter by pro-democracy campaigners in Iran, and the creation of a powerful ‘cyberpolice’ force in China and its impact on the Chinese blogosphere. Yet despite the ample news media coverage of these developments, social media activism remains a poorly understood phenomenon (Turnšek and Jankowski 2008).
There is a growing anthropological corpus on Internet politics and activism that has prepared the ground for the study of social media activism — a form of social/political activism that increasingly relies on new social media technologies (e.g. Facebook, Orkut, Twitter, Delicious, Amazee, Flickr, Scribd, Google Docs, YouTube) for its recruitment, organisation, campaigning and self-identity. Anthropologists are well placed to investigate these trends, having previously researched the entanglements of Internet technologies with diverse political processes and/or social movements around the globe, including indigenous cyberactivism (Landzelius 2006), local e-governance (Hinkelbein 2008, Postill 2008, Strauss 2007), ethno-religious war (Bräuchler 2005), anti-globalisation activism (Juris 2008), hacker activism (Coleman and Golub 2008) and the free software movement (Kelty 2008).
These existing studies suggest the following reflections. First, Internet technologies, activists and practices shape one another in unforeseeable ways, coalescing in some cases as ‘recursive publics’ (Kelty 2008) whose communicative exchanges transform over time the very conditions of their own existence, e.g. when a certain group of activists decide after an online discussion to refashion the digital tools through which they co-operate and mobilise. Second, there is (pace Castells 2001) no global ‘network logic’ operating across the vastly differentiated Internet landscape (Miller and Slater 2000). Rather each Internet world must be understood as having its own logic and studied on its own practical terms, beyond popular notions such as the Network Society or binaries of the ‘virtual life vs. real life’ variety (Boellstorff 2008). Third, when analysing a given mediated world we should be careful to differentiate the anthropological conceptual lexicon from the folk vernacular of our research participants, particularly with regards to normative notions such as ‘community’, ‘network’ or ‘public sphere’ that lack a precise empirical referent. For instance, claims by participants that a given wiki-based group is a ‘community’ or that a certain Twitter list is a non-hierarchical ‘network’ demand further inquiry and should not be taken at face value in view of the problematic status of both notions within the anthropological lexicon (Amit 2002, Postill 2008).
It would be interesting to investigate the current uses of social media for activism and advocacy in Barcelona. The focus could be the Barcelona-based antiglobalisation movement discussed by Juris (2008) in the anthropological monograph Networking Futures. Following the geographer Doreen Massey, Juris argues that transnational networks do not develop in a global void, for they are invariably entangled with ‘a complex nexus of translocal ties and articulations’ (Juris 2008: 63). Thus the field of Catalonian activism is a product of this region’s political and cultural uniqueness, not least of its strong anti-Francoist, nationalist and anarchist traditions (2008: 63). With Zapatista ideals thrown into the mix in the 1990s, the result was ‘a unique form of activism guided by emerging networking logics and practices’. Intriguingly, a new political language of networks evolved, with activists organising themselves around nodes and adopting Internet terminology to articulate their visions and practices. For instance, activists preferred to speak of networks rather than platforms* (2008: 69). In sum, the Internet allowed for faster coordination whilst furthering activists’ anarchist and libertarian ideals (2008: 70).
Juris conducted his Barcelona fieldwork before the current boom in social media. How are social and political activists in Barcelona using social media today to pursue their goals? Given the myriad technological options now available, why do they use the social media that they do, and not their alternatives? Are activists making use of advocacy-specific sites such as Amazee.com or only of personal network sites such as Facebook? What are the specific rewards (Warde 2005) of social media practices when compared to other media practices (Postill in press)? Who is being included in and excluded from the emerging social media activism? Is there a generational divide at work analogous to the divide described by Juris for earlier Internet technologies? How are activists using such technologies (email, mailing lists, online forums, etc), if at all? Can we speak of new kinds of recursive publics formed through social media activism? Is there a celebratory, e-topian discourse emerging around social media analogous to the discourse that arose amongst 1990s activists around ‘networks’ in Catalonia and elsewhere (Edelman 2005, Juris 2008, Riles 2000)? Finally, what are the historical (e.g. after the 2008 financial crash) and political-cultural specificities (see Wellman et al 2002) that are co-shaping, along with the new technologies, contemporary forms of activism in Barcelona?
Image by Damien Basile
* Footnote – Although here Juris seems to overlook the fact that ‘platform’ is also a commonly used internet term.
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