Notes on #socialmedia and #activism presentation, UOC, 26 Nov 2010
This past Friday 26 November 2010 I gave a seminar (in Spanish) to the research group Mediacciones, Open University of Catalonia, on my ongoing research into social media and activism in Barcelona. Here are some quick notes to accompany the Prezi presentation (in English):
Intro: This project investigates the uses of social media by different types of activists in Barcelona during 2010-2011. The research is both ethnographic and historical, i.e. it is anthropological. Having worked on internet activism in suburban Malaysia in 2003-4 – before the social media boom led by Facebook, YouTube and Twitter – I am keen to find out what difference, if any, these new digital platforms make to the practices and actions of activists, albeit in a very different part of the world.
- Soft media are hard work: the new platforms may appear easy to learn and infinitely malleable but I am assuming that only those activists who invest a great amount of time and effort in building and maintaining their social media sites will find them worthwhile.
- Conflicting media logics: the logics of personal media, collective media and mass media are inherently at odds, i.e. an activist (or anyone else, for that matter) cannot behave the same way on a group blog or a wiki (collective media) as they do in a TV studio (mass media) or when sending a private Twitter message (personal medium). Leading activists need to learn how to navigate all three conflicting logics.
- Rooted cosmopolitans (Ganesh and Stohl 2010): locally-based activists with ample international experience and connections will play key roles in the contemporary activist scene – especially those who combine political acumen with digital media savvy (Postill in press).
- Change will be uneven: as Manchester School anthropologists working in urbanising Africa already established back in the 1950s (e.g. Epstein 1957), certain subfields within a given local field of power will be better insulated than other subfields from the winds of change blowing through the locale. This insight can be applied to Barcelona’s numerous activist fields and their core practices, technologies and collective actions.
It would hardly make any sense for me to embark on this kind of research if I didn’t use various social media platforms myself. These include this blog, Twitter, Delicious and Facebook.
Having mapped the contemporary world of activism in Barcelona (by no means a completed task) I am thinking of concentrating on one main social movement (free culture) and two ancillary ones (animal liberation and Catalan nationalism/secessionism) as my case studies. Why these particular activist organisations (EXGAE, Libera, Omnium Cultural)? Because they seem to be able to mobilise a lot of people and get things done, e.g. get bullfighting banned in Catalonia, or pull off a one-million-strong demonstration in Barcelona. To what extent social media are helping them achieve their aims remains to be seen.
A fast-paced, at times intense, discussion following my presentation. These are some of the questions and comments I managed to jot down, with apologies for those names of participants I’ve left out:
- Comment: Some local activists have been critical of my main free culture case study, the Oxcars award ceremony, for banalising serious issues such as digital rights, a free internet, etc. They feel too much media attention has been lavished on this event and its organisers (EXGAE) at the expense of less well known groups.
- César Colorado: This is a descriptive study but where is the theory? what are you aiming at? how do you intend to interpret and evaluate your findings? Answer: in anthropology we do things back to front (al revés). We start by following people on the ground, trying to make sense of their words and deeds, and it’s only later that we start doing serious theoretical work. My co-fieldworker Sarah Pink added: that said, we are already developing a theory of mediated places and practices that draws from this early research.
- Emiliano Treré: Your point about the conflict between mediated individualism and collectivism is important. For instance in researching Italian activists we found that Facebook groups that appeared collective were in fact the work of an individual.
- Your nationalist example, Omnium Cultural, is fascinating, and it can only be understood by looking at its long history starting during the Franco regime when it was banned at one point (for promoting the Catalan language and culture). Things have changed a lot both within Omnium and in Catalonia in recent times: 10 years ago it would’ve been unable to mobilise all the people it did this past July (when about a million people demonstrated in Barcelona following a ruling by Spain’s Constitutional Court limiting Catalonia’s autonomy).
- Elisenda Ardevol: this is what anthropology can bring to a field of study like this – an outsider just gets parachuted here and comes up with three completely different case studies; a surprising choice from a local perspective.
- Edgar Gomez: Yes, a historical dimension is crucial even when studying very recent technologies. Internet history itself is very much shaped by free culture, see the terrific book by Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism.
- Veronica Barassi: I love the open-ended anthropological scheme unfolding in this research. As for the notion of ‘media logic’, Altheide and Snow (1979) used the term in a different way… I prefer the notion of media imaginary. Gomez: better to speak of mediations rather than media (Barbero and more recently Couldry). My answer: yes, perhaps what I meant was socio-technical logic, i.e. the logic of Twitter will shape how activists use it, but so will the activist groups’ unique histories, personnel, etc. This was followed by a lengthy debate about technological and social affordances, with Edgar Gomez arguing that when you follow people’s (digital) practices you realise that they have few restrictions in what they end up doing with a given technology, e.g. digital cameras.
- @YuriBCN: In this discussion of how much or how little users can change a given technology, we seem to be forgetting that whilst Facebook is a closed system, Twitter is open.
Photo credit: Edgar Gomez, aka @imagenaciones