Digital media, new social movements and the cosmopolitarian subject

By Javier de Rivera

The social movements of 2011 have put the political relevance of social media on the front page of social analysis. From a discourse based on the marketing marvelousness of the Web 2.0, the “prosumer” and new business possibilities, we passed in just a few months to talk about political revolutions (in the middle East) and the democratizing power of social media. Every scholar or intellectual interested in technology, politics and social issues jumped on the stage to make his/her explanation of what was happening. It was a wonderful time for tinkering ideas about the relation between new media, politics and social movements.

After some time, the discussion has settle down and we could now begin to better understand how these elements were and are intertwined. At the moment everybody was struggling to make sense of it, with opinions that went from the most naïve simplistic idea that “networks bring freedom” (Sullivan, 2009; Wolman 20081, 2011) to the most conservative rejection of the relation between revolution and social media (Gladwell, 2011). Then, we could gather more and more accounts of what happened, particularly in Tunisia and Egypt, but also in Spain, Greece and the US, we begin to understand the complex relationships involved in these new sociopolitical processes.

One of these accounts is made by Srinivasan in the article “Bridges Between Cultural and Digital Worlds in Revolutionary Egypt” (2013), where he presents the results of his research in Egypt as well as others’ accounts of the phenomenon. Although it does not answers all the questions, this text offers an interesting perspective to think about the influence of social media in social movements, a perspective that we could synthesize like this: on certain conditions new media can articulate the opinion of a cosmopolitan cultural elite that can help to produce social change by influencing the local population through the interaction with ‘old’ media and by spreading the local struggle for freedom in a global context, therefore connecting with other cosmopolitan elites in other countries who influence their own local media. So, instead of continuing in the intellectual loop of simple answers to the question: Do social media produce democratic revolutions? Srinivasan opens an interesting new path to reflect on this complex relationship, by identifying different uses of social media and different layers in the explanation of these revolutionary events.

 The question could not be answered easily, because we need to position it in the global context of political, cultural and social situations. Recalling others’ contributions made at the time, we find Gladwell’s and Morozov’s skepticisms over the “twitter revolution”, both probably failed to represent the whole picture, but were at least a breath of fresh air in an atmosphere loaded with simplistic enthusiasm. Morozov wrote Net Delusion before the Arab Spring and his skepticism focus on the less successful Iranian “twitter revolution” of 2009. Although he could not address the 2011 events, his arguments are still valuable to interpret the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

More shocking was Gladwel claim against slacktivism and the idea that the weak ties of social media cannot provide the political commitment necessary to engage in revolutionary activities. It was a simple critique directed to a simple naïve assumption, not the final answer or explanation of how things happened; the main idea he was trying to make clear was: there must have been some “real life,” strong ties in Egypt that enacted people to take the streets. And there was.

Srinivasan’s answer at the time, introducing the case of political blogging in Kyrgyzstan as an example of strong ties built through new media, does not invalidates or challenges Gladwel’s basic critique; it only means: the relation between media and revolution is complicated and depends on the context. What we find in Kyrgyzstan is a use of new media adapted to a political struggle where political commitment is there from the beginning, and what Gladwel was really talking about was the particular feature of new media that we find in commercial networking sites, like Facebook or Twitter, that it alone is not enough to build strong ties.

 However, as time passes we gain perspective and things begin to make sense when we connect it to other analytical ideas, like the concept of the cosmopolitan subject and the social dynamics inherent to the articulation of new and old media, the global and the local, the virtual and the physical. Then, we open the scope of analysis and begin to think, for example, in how do people inform themselves about what is happening in the world. Ethan Zuckerman, founder of Global Voices, is particularly interested in this issue. As he explains in a TED talk (July, 2010), the amount of information Americans get from international sources is very low in comparison with the local news, a trend that comes from old media, but that can be also reproduced (and boosted) in new media if we do not take specific measures to prevent it. Initiatives like Global Voices and Yeeyanim (a Chinese translation project) aim to build bridges that help to rise a cosmopolitan consciousness, but nothing can be done if the final “information consumers” maintain their focus only on local issues, directly related to their personal lives. In this sense, the concept of the cosmopolitan subject implies a broader view of the world that make people engage with global issues, and also implies enough (new) media literacy to find the adequate information sources from other parts of the word. Zuckerman’s reflection on the possible reasons2 why someone could be interested in global information is quite interesting, and gives us valuable clues about his conception of the cosmopolitan subject:

Ethan Zuckerman’s answer to David Sasaky’s question:

Why do people read content that does not relate to their immediate lives?

– the broader your view of the world, the more likely you are to see business opportunities in other nations

– the broader the view, the more likely you see threats emerging elsewhere, and can, perhaps, react to them

– the broader your view of the world, the more inspiration, creativity, perspective you have access to

– It’s incumbent upon all of us to witness injustice and tragedy and try to prevent it, wherever it occurs.

 For Zuckerman, the cosmopolitan subject is someone interested and open to do international business, who looks for her own safety, but also values inspiration and creativity, and has an abstract sensibility against injustice in every place of the world. We do not have to agree with these reasons or characteristics, some of which are a little bit odd (like the international business one), but what is relevant in them is the introspection about the “reasons to be interested in global issues” as a method to characterize our idea of the cosmopolitan subject; be those reasons the ones pointed by Zuckerman or some others we might think of.

If we articulate together these two perspectives, Srinivasan’s on Revolutionary Egypt and Zuckerman’s on the cosmopolitan subject, we get to understand that in order for new media to serve democratizing purposes, we need to articulate this cosmopolitan sensibility as part of the social dynamics in the Internet. The difference between social media as echo chambers of self-replicating discourses that only strength radical and fanatic interpretation of reality, and social media as the way to rise global consciousness and promote democracy, lies in the styles of use that can be articulated by cosmopolitan subjects.

 Bibliography:

Foran, J. – Global Affinities: The New Cultures of Resistance behind the Arab Spring.

Ginsburg, F – Re-thinking the Digital Age

Gladwel, M. 2012. Small change: Why the revolutions will not be Twittered. The New Yorker. October 4.

Srinivasan, R. – Bridges Between Digital And Cultural Worlds in Revolutionary Egypt

Srinivasan, R. – Taking Power Through Technology in the Arab Spring – Al Jazeera English – http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/09/2012919115344299848.html

Sullivan, A. 2009. The revolution will be Twittered. The Atlantic, June 13.

Wolman, D. 2008. Cairo activists use Facebook to rattle regime. Wired Magazine 16.11.

Wolman, D. 2011. The instigators [e-book].

Zuckerman, E. – Media Tracking And The Quantified Self – http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2010/09/09/media-tracking-and-the-quantified-self/

1Sullivan (2009) and Wolman (2008) talk about previous revolts in the Arab world (the Iran “tweet-revolution” of 2009 and the April 6th movement in Egypt), advancing the argument that Social Media was having a democratic impact in these countries.

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