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The epidemiology of digital #activism: more than just virals

January 14, 2011

I´m back in Barcelona after a most enjoyable seminar at the Media and Communications Department, Karlstad University, in Sweden. The weather was clement (a mild -7 celsius in the morning of my departure) and I had a very warm welcome from André Jansson, Florencia Enghel and other staff and students. Many thanks to all concerned! Some quick notes on the presentation and Q&A, which will form the basis of a forthcoming article on this topic:

Title: The epidemiology of digital activism: more than virals (see also Prezi presentation)

Summary notes:

Since the mid-1990s placenames like Chiapas, Seattle, Manila, Madrid, Moldova, Iran and now Tunisia have become associated with ‘smart mobs’ (Rheingold) in which internet and/or mobile technologies are used by a mass of ad-hoc demonstrators to great effect. According to Wikipedia, a smart mob is a

group that, contrary to the usual connotations of a mob, behaves intelligently or efficiently because of its exponentially increasing network links. This network enables people to connect to information and others, allowing a form of social coordination.

We could call these spectacular episodes ‘viral campaigns’, and in this presentation I argue that they are important and worthy of study. I also suggest, however, that there is more to the epidemiology of digital activism than viral campaigns, and we should be careful not to exaggerate their importance only because they attain high levels of participation and media visibility. There are also ‘campaign virals’ (e.g. a galvanizing tweet or YouTube clip, some of which take on a life of their own and spread well beyond their original contexts) and socio-technical barriers to the spread of virals (e.g. a Facebook group’s specific etiquette and taboos will inhibit the spread of certain virals) to consider.

Viral campaigns. Two examples of successful viral campaigns  from my own anthropological fieldwork:

(a) September 2004 mobilisation in the suburb of  Subang Jaya (Malaysia) against the local authorities for attempting to build a food court on land earmarked for a police station (Postill in press). Activists, politicians, municipal staff, journalists and others used a range of internet and mobile technologies to co-star in a fast-moving social drama. Two key arenas were the USJ.com.my e-community forum and the building site itself. (NB – this was before the advent of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc.)

(b) December 2010 mobilisation across Spain against the country’s ruling socialist party (PSOE) for seeking to pass a law aimed at curtailing the downloading of copyrighted contents – the controversial #leysinde. Activists, politicians, journalists, celebrities and other political agents used  Twitter, blogs, news media sites, broadcast media and other technologies to co-star in an even faster social drama played out ‘in real time’. Two key arenas were Twitter’s ‘trending topics’ (most popular topics at any given time) and the Spanish Parliament in Madrid and surrounding streets.

Main features of viral campaigns:

  • explosive growth
  • dramatic, liminal (V. Turner)
  • participatory – in real time
  • many arenas, both online and offline
  • …but some more central than others, e.g. web forum in Subang 2004, Twitter in Spain 2010

Campaign virals

These come in two varieties:

(a) virals that are tethered to a given campaign, e.g. tweets that captured the mood of a mobilisation and were massively retweeted but then quickly died out and were forgotten

(b) virals that take a life of their own and transcend the bounds of the original collective action or campaign, e.g. a YouTube video clip doing the email and social media rounds months or years after its creation. These virals are less conspicuous, more elusive and perhaps weren’t seen by millions, but we shouldn’t underestimate the long tail (Anderson) of thousands of minor campaign virals spreading across a population.

Socio-technical barriers

To date researchers studying digital contents that ‘go viral’ (i.e. popular ads, jokes, rumours, hoaxes, etc.) have assumed that such contents spread through horizontal social networks. By contrast, here I argue that digital virals spread not only via networks but also through the highly uneven terrain made up of a huge variety of socio-technical formations (mailing lists, peer groups, web forums, firms, chatrooms, fields, facebook groups, nuclear families, twitter tribes, mosques, mobile contacts, etc.). In this section I explore some of these socio-technical barriers to the spread of digital epidemics, and suggest that this kind of analysis can shed light not only on the epidemiology of digital contents, but also on the moral-technical universes that hinder their diffusion – in this case, the fields of digital activism in Spain and Malaysia.

Digital epidemiology

Finally, there is the  question of the broader cultural consequences of digital activism. Following Sperber (1996) I call this the ‘cultural epidemiology’ of digital activism. What remains of a digital campaign, and of the daily epidemiological labour of activists (including the hard job of innoculating others from virals regarded as being pernicious, i.e. inimical to the cause)? The vast majority of tweets, clips, posters, slogans, etc, will eventually fade away and end in the rubbish heap of history, but what about those shared contents or ideas that ‘stick’ and become part of a culture? For example the viral request “Pásalo” (Pass it on) was used in SMS messages following the March 2004 bombings in Madrid to organise a spontaneous march against the ruling Partido Popular for blaming the attacks on ETA rather than on Islamist extremists. This expression is now an integral part of the activist and journalistic vocabulary across Spain.

Q&A

Q1. This Ley Sinde (Sinde law) episode in Spain recently, was there any criticism of the proposed law by political elites? Because according to indexing theory (within the field of political communication) unless there is official backing there won’t be a controversy. If the political elites agree it’s not an issue, then it won’t be one.

A1. Yes, from the outset it appears that the only party that was keen on this law was the ruling socialist party, PSOE. They soon lost the support of their nationalist partners in Catalonia and the Basque Country, see RTVE timeline of #leysinde drama. In othe words, there was no political elite consensus.

Q2. I was a PSOE activist – and still am – during the March 2004 events in Madrid, and there was indeed a lot of texting with the message “Pasalo” against the Popular Party (PP). I agree that “Pasalo” is now a commonly used term in Spain, and the PP themselves used it at a later point to attack the socialists.

A2. [More of a comment, so no reply. ]

Q3. Why do anthropologists have an aversion to the notion of ‘diffusion’, as you mentioned towards the end?

A3. It has to do with the peculiar history of our discipline, which took an ahistorical turn in the 1920s around the ‘invention’ of Malinowski’s fieldwork method. The main problem with diffusion for anthropologists is that it seems to imply that some societies are more advanced than others, e.g. Ancient Egypt diffusing its cultural innovations to other parts of Africa. In my book Media and Nation Building I have put these reservations to one side and show how, for instance, East Malaysia has been a net importer of cultural elements from West Malaysia since the creation of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. West Malaysia is the stronger political, economic and cultural partner, as is Western Germany in relation to the former East Germany. This is not a moral judgment, merely a statement of the historical facts.

Q4. You spoke about ‘banal activism’ in the context of the Kuala Lumpur suburb. Was that because the issues were banal? Is activism becoming more integrated into everyday life?

Q5. Yes, the context was suburban issues that to an urban intellectual may seem banal or mundane, such as traffic jams, rubbish disposal or poorly maintained playgrounds, but that are nevertheless important to middle-class parents who’ve invested a lot of time, effort and money moving to an area that they tought would be conducive to raising a family. I later discovered in the ICT literature that very similar issues concerned suburban residents in very different cultural contexts from that of Kuala Lumpur, such as Melbourne, Tel Aviv or Toronto.

Whether Twitter and other social media are contributing to the banalisation of activism (and politics more generally), this question has been debated for a while now, as I said at the outset (e.g. Shirky, Morozov, Gladwell) and remains open. More ethnographic research is needed! My preliminary work in Barcelona suggests that Twitter can be a very exciting and absorbing environment to join during the peak of a campaign – it can be serious fun to send ironic and witty messages and see them retweeted widely (if you’re lucky). There is no doubt an element of real-time spectacle in which the boundaries between performers and audience have collapsed; a lot to research here, but again let’s not forget the much less spectacular aspects of daily activist labour, incl. the quiet mundane fight against enemy virals, away from the media limelight.

To be continued…

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 25, 2011 9:28 am

    An example of the “pass it on” phrase that’s just come in, in relation to the Sinde law:

    SINDEcencia, SINDEbate, SINDErecho, SINDEmocracia. NO A LA LEY BIDEN-SINDE. Comunicado de Red Sostenible, pásalo Ángeles González-Sinde pírate, No votaremos a quienes voten la Disposición Final Primera (Ley Sinde)

  2. February 2, 2011 11:53 am

    Of course, “pass it on” is also used for chain emails and other viral contents. Just this morning I was urged to “pass on” a hoax about a missing girl:

    “RV: RV: Pásalo tan rápido y a tantos como te sea posible..”

    Translation: “Fwd: Fwd: Pass it on as fast and to as many people as possible”

    Often euphemistic expressions such as “please share it” are used in lieu of “pass it on”.

  3. June 17, 2011 8:26 am

    Digital epidemiology in Tunisia:

    “…Mohamed Bouazizi was not the linked-in, internet whizz, you may have read about, who wrote online about his intentions and frustrations.

    As it happens it was another college student, with the same name, who posted his poetry and revolutionary song lyrics on the web. It was arguably these posts and the way they spread like wildfire in Tunisia and beyond – which the regime could do nothing to stop – that helped fuel the uprising.”

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-13800493

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