Three working assumptions about social media and activism, J. Postill
Reworked notes following presentation at the Networking Democracy symposium, Cluj-Napoca, 25-27 June 2010. Many thanks to the organisers for a terrific event!
This conference comes for me at point of transition from previous anthropological fieldwork on Web 1.0 and local activism in a Malaysian suburb to imminent fieldwork on Web 2.0 and translocal activism in Barcelona. So I’m very excited to be here. If Malaysian activism was to do with local issues and was led by mostly middle-aged residents, I expect the Barcelona anti-corporate globalisation and free culture scenes (possible research sites) to be younger and geographically more dispersed and nomadic.
Aim of this presentation is to lay the conceptual groundwork in preparation for fieldwork. I will do this by reviewing the three assumptions about social media and activism in Barcelona that I am currently working with – all manner of critiques and falsifications are welcome. The three assumptions are as follows:
1. There is no overarching network society, no network logic at work in the world of activism. Instead I expect to find an ever expanding universe of socio-technical formations, both new (Twitter streams, Facebook groups, Delicious friends…) and old (e-mail lists, marches, protests, meetings, peer groups…), each with its own logic and interacting in complex ways. Instead of relying on a handful of poorly defined and overused notions such as ‘community’, ‘network’ or ‘public sphere’, we need to expand our socio-technical lexicon to keep up with a veritable explosion of socio-technical life forms.
2. Social media are hard, perplexing work – and they are getting more so all the time. The present ‘media torrent’ (Nielsen 2009) shows no signs of drying up. How will activists (and indeed other practitioners) try to cope with the deluge of social media communication? through more communication, ignoring messages, etc (Nielsen 2009). Keeping up with technological changes, maintaining more or less stable groups, mobilising people and so on is hard, sustained work, a lot of it invisible and unsung. As Bruce Bimber pointed out in the Q&A that followed my presentation, activists are puzzled by the growing range of digital tools on offer, tools that are in flux. In addition, there is the fundamental tension between the ‘me-centric’ (Castells) logic of personal media forms such as social network sites, micro-blogging sites and mobiles on the one hand, and the collectivist practices and ideals of activists on the other. An activist who’s risen to prominence through a combination of political acumen and technical virtuosity must beware that she is not perceived as having risen at the expense of ‘the community’ (I call this problem ‘the weakness of weak ties’, see this blog).
3. Change will occur unevenly across fields of activism and political culture areas. As Epstein (1957) shows in his pioneering work on local governance in a North Rhodesian mining town, political fields are internally differentiated and their sectors change at varying rates – partly because some sectors will be better insulated than others from the winds of change blowing through the broader politico-technological landscape and political culture area (e.g. of Spain). I expect the same will be true of the field of political activism in Barcelona in 2010-2011. At any rate, leading activists who are ‘rooted cosmopolitans’ (local but well travelled, see Ganesh and Stohl 2010) will be crucially implicated in those changes that do take place through their ability to connect local and translocal spheres of action and mediated practice. Social media tools will be but one set of tools in their repertoire.