What does anthropology have to say about social media and activism?
This is a draft of a short invited piece for the now published Anthropology Unbound: A Field Guide to the 21st Century, 3rd ed. E. Paul Durrenberger and Suzan Erem. Oxford University Press, 2016. The remit was to write a jargon-free, personal narrative about my research into social media and activism.
In the Spring of 2011 I took a short break from anthropological fieldwork among internet activists in Barcelona (Catalonia, Spain) to visit friends and family in Madrid, where I grew up. In a bar near the centre, over cold beers and tapas, I was introduced to a group of middle-aged, bookish people. When they learned I was living in Barcelona, the unavoidable subject of Catalonia’s national aspirations, which most Madrileños adamantly oppose, was raised.
Thankfully the subject soon changed to my research. Although I tried my best to explain what I was doing, I felt I was not getting through. When I reported, for instance, about the marches calling for ‘Real democracy now!’ to be held across Spain that coming 15 May, I only got blank stares. The same happened when I explained how organisers were heavy users of social media, or when I talked about the close link between the planned marches and earlier online protests to defend the rights of internet users.
There was one exception: a man in his 50s with an IT background did ‘get’ what I was talking about. He had followed events closely via social media and knew about the #15M demonstrations and their internet activism roots. This man spoke my language. Not the language of Madrid’s mainstream media, but rather the language of Spain’s (including Catalonia’s) online activism scene.
Then it struck me. For the past nine months I had been so fully immersed in the world of internet activism that my take on current affairs was coming from a small corner of Spain’s media landscape. More importantly, so was that of my research participants. We were all living in what I call a ‘viral reality’, the hybrid making and sharing of news by media professionals and amateurs via social media.
This experience got me thinking about the need for a more anthropological, i.e. more holistic, understanding of present-day media, one in which we question the assumption that ‘new’ media are replacing ‘old’ media. As a number of media scholars have argued, instead of replacement we have the co-existence and uneven mixing of countless media formats. The challenge for activists and academics alike is how to grasp this dynamic, rapidly changing complexity.
What can the anthropology of media offer towards this collaborative effort? First, we can offer firsthand experiences of immersion in small media worlds followed by ‘aha’ moments of realising their inescapable specificity, like the one I had in Madrid. Second, we can ‘follow’ hybrid media actors such as Spain’s Ada Colau or Malaysia’s Jeff Ooi, both activists turned politicians who have learned how to work across media platforms to reach new publics. Third, anthropologists have studied dynamic political systems for many decades in places as diverse as Highland Burma, urban Zambia and rural Mexico. We now need to connect this rich tradition to the study of digitally mediated political conflict instead of jumping on the latest bandwagon. Finally, we need to get politically involved. As Spain’s 15M (indignados) protesters are wont to say, this is only the beginning. There is far more techno-political change in the making than mainstream news of the rise and fall of protest movements from Wall Street to Hong Kong would suggest.