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Introduction: Social Buzz, Political Boom? Ethnographic Engagements with Digital Militancy

From: Anthropological Quarterly
Volume 85, Number 3, Summer 2012
pp. 885-891 | 10.1353/anq.2012.0042

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It took us a long time to realize that the power of a technology is proportional to its inherent out-of-controlness, its inherent ability to surprise and be generative. In fact, unless we can worry about a technology, it is not revolutionary enough.

-Kevin Kelly, co-founder Wired Magazine (2006)

This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update-each individual bit of social information-is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends' and family members' lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting.

-Clive Thompson, The New York Times (2008)

Ethnographic Contributions to a Public Debate on the Politics of Social Media

As revolution and repression rumble through the Middle East for a second year, and occupations and anti-austerity protests sweep the US and Europe, the appraisal of social media's political edges has become a topic of popular debate. Not surprisingly, there have been few clear conclusions about how social buzz corresponds with political booms, with most commentators unable to agree on anything other than an affinity between increases in turbulent political currents and surges in social media usage. There is an almost obsessive quality to the recursion of inconclusive commentary about the role of new technologies in politics. It is as if the mass media, anxious about their own place in the media ecology, is worrying out loud about what Kevin Kelly (2006) called social media's "out-of-controlness." As a corrective to glib pronouncements about the agency of social media following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, some thoughtful commentators and academics have sought to contextualize recent political developments (e.g., special sections and forums in Cultural Anthropologist and American Ethnologist; see Elyacher and Winegar 2012, Haugerud 2012). These interventions show that the relationship between social media and political upheaval is one of association at best, and that political change is overdetermined. More compelling (if not necessarily sufficient) frameworks for understanding political change take into account how multiple forces, such as histories of political contestation, geo-politics, demographics, and ethno-religious fissures, combine to effect political change. The essays in this special section contribute to this corrective effort.

The texts published here contribute to an emerging ethnographic literature about how political actors use social media technologies, and how social media companies become political actors. How do anti-authoritarian activists and security states seek to harness the power they sense lurks behind social media? How do they take up the tools of social media to spin and pivot towards their political goals? The essays in this "Social Thought & Commentary" section demonstrate that social networking applications have no inherent political allegiances and, like technologies before them, derive their politics from the people who make them, and the people who distribute and receive content through them (though in social media the categories of creator, distributor, and receiver are increasingly blurry).

Rebecca Stein, Charles Hirschkind, and I encountered media politics situated in dynamic interludes between media events. Stein researched Israeli officials as they sought to integrate social media into government bureaucracies in ways that would play to their political advantage. She details how the Israeli state latched onto YouTube and Facebook despite their uncertainties about how to use them as propaganda tools. The Israeli Defense Forces, for example, had to recalibrate its obsessions with control and command by strategically sharing classified images of military operations with the public, figuring out the right settings for enabling public comment, and along what lines to censor that commentary. Hirschkind interviews blogger and longtime Egyptian activist Alaa Abd Al-Fattah, who situates the revolution of 2011 within a recent history of oppositional politics, from the Egyptian human rights movement to the activists' responses to events, from 9/11 to the second intifada. Al-Fattah describes the feedback between the modalities of online posting and intertextual signage in Tahrir Square, breaking down the binary between online and offline activism propagated by the pundits. For my part, I go behind the walls of Facebook to interpret the symbolism of its office space, interview employees who manage the Facebook brand, and question the logics...



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