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Presentation notes: “Free culture activism and social media in Barcelona”

April 29, 2011

Dr John Postill
IN3 Visiting Fellow
Thursday 28 April, 10:30 to 12:00
IN3, Mediatic Building, 7th floor
W. Mitchell Room
Open University of Catalonia
Roc Boronat, 117 (near Glories)


The free culture movement is an international movement that defends the right of ordinary people to freely produce, consume, share and modify digital and other cultural artefacts. In this talk I review my current research into the uses of social media for free culture activism in Barcelona, a city that is home to a thriving free culture scene. I shall discuss the following findings: (1) The free culture movement in Barcelona takes on a range of online and offline forms, including an alternative award ceremony, forums, seminars, training sessions, and protests; (2) activists’ use of proprietary software does not raise any major ethical dilemmas, (3) social media are essential tools in the free culture toolbox, especially Twitter, Facebook, Menéame, YouTube, Vimeo, blogs and wikis; (4) …but so are good old-fashioned mailing lists (a neglected technology in the academic and journalistic discourse); (5) free culture activism in Barcelona is attuned to the changing political scene in Madrid, e.g. during the December 2010 mobilisation against  the Sinde bill (“Ley Sinde”), aimed at curtailing free access to copyrighted contents; and (6) one bone of contention within the movement is to what extent internet campaigns require a ‘street’ dimension in order to be effective. In the latter part of the talk I will offer some tentative explanations for this set of findings building on my previous research into internet activism (Postill, J. in press. Localizing the Internet: An Anthropological Account. Oxford: Berghahn).


Thank you IN3 for fellowship and highly conducive environment for this research.

Background: Media/digital anthropology. Most recently fieldwork in Malaysia, 2003-4, internet activism in a KL suburb (Postill in press), Web 1.0, very local issues.

Currently: Fieldwork here in Barcelona into social media and activism. Started looking at anti-bullfight and nationalist activism back in the summer (both high impact yet low in social media usage), but since December 2010 concentrating on free culture movement. Why? Because of ethnographic ‘follow the action’ imperative.

Question: Do social media (Twitter, FB, YouTube, Google Groups…) make any significant difference to how activists go about their practices and collective actions?

Free Culture Movement. USA origin, Lessig 2004 book Free Culture, Creative Commons, QuestionCopyright. From USA spread to Europe, Latin America (esp. Brazil) and other regions.

FC movement in Spain

Late 2009 Ley de Economia Sostenible and reactions to it -> RedSostenible, platform that brought together different groups/initiatives, but internal fighting and Asociacion de Internautas asked to leave.

Dec 2010 Anti Ley-Sinde campaign. 20 Dec closure of free contents sites to protest the proposed bill on a Sunday afternoon. Huge outcry from Spanish population deprived of its favourite digital contents. Catalan party (CiU) politicians backed out and bill not passed by Spanish Parliament. A great deal of media coverage, including updates on what Twitterers were saying, and online celebrations after hearing the outcome, e.g. RTVE.

Feb 2011. Eventually the bill passed, angry reaction leading to the creation of new platforms that arguably no longer about free culture, but broader question of democratisation, (1) NoLesVotes, asking people not to vote for any of the major parties. Google Group, wiki, twitter, facebook… (2) Democracia Real Ya!, a lot of FB plus twitter, web forum, pirate pad… (3) …

1. FC movement takes on many different forms

  • Award ceremony celebrating alternative/free cultural production, Oxcars Oct 2010 organised by Exgae (now LaEX)
  • Forums, esp. international Free Culture Forum day after the Oxcars, also LaEX
  • Seminars, colloquia, e.g. (1) #redadas series, panelists and audience with live streaming and tweeting, (2) here at IN3 led by Joan Coscubiela and Arnau Monty, civil society and social media seminar series brings together practitioners and theorists – to me a godsend because ‘the field’ comes to me once a month, as it were
  • Twitter hashtags, e.g. #leysinde, #alejandrosanzfacts, #copiadmalditos
  • Training sessions, e.g. I attended one by LaEX on FB and Twitter for new recruits
  • Protests, often both online and offline
  • others

2. FC activists’ use of proprietary software doesn’t raise any major ethical dilemmas

Yes, the issue of irony of free culture (incl. software) activists using proprietary software sometimes crops up but activists shrug it off.

Pragmatic, undogmatic take on this, eg. to paraphrase: “I find FB debate boring. FB allows us to reach a much greater audience”. “Why should I be concerned about privacy if I do legal transparent non-violent stuff, e.g. civil disobedience”. “Twitter created to benefit businesses but people have found other uses for it. It’s a fast source of information and dissemination –  a ‘technology of generosity’ as one FC activist put it, in that people acknowledge where they’re getting their info from, giving credit to their sources”.

3. Social media are essential tools in the FC toolbox…

FB, Twitter, Meneame, YouTube, Vimeo, Google Groups…

Whilst activists navigate with practised ease many of the existing SM platforms (both proprietary and free), each platform seen as having own characteristics that must be understood and used properly. Also, different activists will use them differently.

For instance, one activist told me FB more visceral and Twitter more informative and serious.

Another who is a very regular and prolific blogger said he doesn’t use Twitter much, too distracting. He prefers FB because it’s calmer, more opportunities for dialogue – Twitter more like graffiti.

A third activist is enthusiastic about the free platform Pirate Pad which I’ve used as well, great for collaborative work, similar to  a wiki, each contributor chooses a different colour so you know who’s contributed what, and there is a chat app on the right hand-side bar allowing for real-time coordination.

4. … but so are good old-fashioned mailing lists

Neglected technology in the journalistic and academic discourse, this ancient technology that predates the Web.

Yet crucial still today for information, collaboration, deliberation. Activist: “It’s essential for serious debates”, e.g. within the Asociacion de Internautas. No anonymous users, harder for trolls to operate, non-hierarchical (see Kelty 2008, Two Bits).

An interesting development is ‘remediation’ of mailing lists via Google Groups that we’ve seen with launch of #Nolesvotes campaign. Still same old function.

Many lists are closed, by invitation only, e.g. Exgae, RedSostenible, Asociacion. Much more research needed on these lists.

5. FC activists in Barcelona attuned to changing political scene in Madrid

FC movement in BCN two main articulations: international (e.g. FC Forum) and esp. national (Ley Sinde).

Catalan dimension still small, e.g. Catalan-language platform modelled on communitarian news sharing site Meneame hasn’t managed to take off yet.

6. One key debate: to what extent do net campaigns require a ‘street’ dimension?

Not confined to FC movement, of course, see Shirky vs. Morozov debates since 2009 in Belarus, Iran, more recently in Arab world

Two positions: internet is public space in its own right vs. politicians only pay attention if mass demo on the streets.

Both positions reliant on problematic street vs. internet dichotomy – false dichotomy in fact.


(a) Ontological aspects

Why this set of findings? what to make of them? why here and now? Unique constellation of factors, potent mix:

  • post-2008 financial and economic crisis in which Spain and many other Western countries mired
  • strong tradition in Spain of internet activism since 1990s
  • Barcelona in particular some very active and talented individuals and groups; anarchist and neighbourhood activism roots
  • Twitter, FB other social media now widespread – critical mass can be quickly built
  • FC movement now at least 7 years old, FS movement much older, its ideas and practices percolating out into other non-geeky domains
  • ever more ‘viral reality’ framing our political and economic mapping of the world

(b) Epistemological aspects

Must expand socio-technical lexicon, from net, street, community to much greater vocab – beyond community/network trap (Postill 2008)

Follow the actors, technologies, socio-technical universes.

Issues raised during Q&A (with many thanks to participants!!):

  1. Email can be really effective in a campaign, you don’t always need social media. Answer: indeed, sometimes pen and paper will do, e.g. successful petition in Catalonia to ban bullfighting.
  2. Social movement leaders and their different ideological backgrounds; to what extent free culture makes strange bedfellows.
  3. How to analyse the speed and scale of a collective mobilisation (see The Economist)
  4. To understand activism and mobilisations important to find out what ‘the enemy’ is doing as well
  5. The part YouTube videos may be playing in FC movement
  6. New ethos of sharing, collaboration, freedom is integral to this movement
  7. Arab revolutions have made an impact – making people think that change is actually possible
  8. Plug: we actually have an informal discussion about the Arab uprisings coming up at IN3 soon
  9. Figure of internet activist is changing, opening up to ordinary people, not just geeks or nerds
  10. Argentinian political activism from afar (Argentines living in Barcelona)
  11. Slacktivism/clicktivism of merely clicking a FB button etc.
  12. The dangers of the centralisation of FB, Twitter etc data in USA servers, Big Brother; never before did US have greater access to intimate details of people in Spain; possible solutions could be more local servers, and improving listserv technology
  13. Methods used in the present study: field mapping, interviews, participant observation (online and offline), digital archive research
3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 30, 2011 8:07 am

    Thx John, for interesting post!

    We would like to bring two more issues into the discours, to be developed.

    1. Social media platforms owned by commercial (US based) companies

    The big 5 globally used ‘social media’ platforms are owned by commercial companies based in the US. These companies aren’t ruled by any of the common known ‘democratic basic rulings’. The oompanies can do with the saved and collected data as they please. In the case of Spain anti-bullfight activists: personal details and opinions can be sold to bullfight stakeholders. That’s not ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’, it’s part of the business modell.
    Issue 12 from the Q & A’s points out at this, but in a wrong way. It’s not the US who has the power to control all networks, it’s private companies.

    10com has the opinion, activistst should develop their own networks, and regulators worldwide must make it possible, that all different networks can be ‘knotted’ together, so that a citizen can receive 140 character-messages from different platforms in one mailbox.

    2. Digital media easy to manipulate

    Digital media can be easy manipulated. 20 Facebook employees can open 50 FB accounts with Arabic sounding names and avatars, and start a revolution that only happens on the web. It’s a great way for a company, to enter new markets.

    3. Not for profit hackers vs digital burglars

    We have the impression, most hacks in big networks untill now have been done by ‘social hackers’ or ‘hacktivists’: people who execute hacks as a warning, to improve security systems. We come to this conclusion by the fact, that when all big datanetwork-breaches of the last year would have been done by criminals, a third of all western bank-accounts would have been robbed allready.

    We therefore suggest, to make a clear difference between a hack done because of the hack, not to gain personal profit, and people who breach data-collections to gain individual profit, a deed that can be compared with ‘theft’ in the analogue world.

    Let’s call the firstgroup hackers, and the second thief, burglar or something alike.

    These thoughts and ideas are protected under the creative commons license:
    Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

    Discuss or connect with us via twitter @10comm

  2. April 30, 2011 11:29 am

    After commenting the above post, we tweeted the link and received via Twitter, @JohnFMoore, a post on Social Media manupulating by Craig Thomler, a contributor to the Brisbane (AUS) conference “media140”

  3. May 3, 2011 9:29 pm

    Many thanks for contributing these thoughts, 10 com!

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