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Social media activism: three working assumptions

January 10, 2010

Paper proposal by John Postill to the symposium
Networking Democracy? New Media Innovations in Participatory Politics
Babeş-Bolyai University
Cluj, Romania
25-27 June 2010

In recent years millions of ordinary people in the global North have joined in the explosive growth of social media. Although the interdisciplinary literature on social media is currently bourgeoning, one relatively neglected area is the uses of social media for advocacy, campaigning and activism. This paper explores the limits and possibilities of an anthropological contribution to this emerging area of research by means of three working assumptions based on prior anthropological research into Web 1.0 activism (Postill in press). The first is that social media (or Web 2.0) tools, practices and activists will shape one another in unforeseeable ways, coalescing in some cases as ‘recursive fields of practice’ (Postill in press, cf. Kelty 2008) whose communicative exchanges transform over time the very conditions of the field’s existence, e.g. when a certain group of activists refashion the Free Software tools through which they co-operate following an online deliberation. Second, there is likely to be no global ‘network logic’ operating across the vastly differentiated social media landscape (cf. Miller and Slater 2000).  Rather each social media world must be expected to have its own logic and should be studied on its own practical terms. Third, when analysing a given social media world we must take care to distinguish our technical lexicon from the folk vernacular of our ethnographic research participants, particularly when it comes to normative notions ideals such as ‘community’, ‘network’ or ‘public sphere’ lacking a precise empirical referent. For instance, claims by informants that a given wiki-based group is a ‘community’ or that a certain Twitter tribe is a non-hierarchical, self-organising ‘network’ demand further inquiry and should not be taken at face value in view of the chequered scholarly careers of such notions (Amit 2002, Postill 2008).

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 14, 2010 6:47 pm

    “. . . each social media world must be expected to have its own logic and should be studied on its own practical terms”

    Excellent insight, John. I’ll be placing you on my blogroll. Thanks for a fine blog.

  2. January 15, 2010 9:47 am

    Thanks Richard – I’ll let you know in due course if this working assumption ‘works’ in the field 🙂

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