“what (can ordinary people) use for the purposes of self-representation within technologically enabled social networks?” (Hartley, 2010, p.234)

How can we represent ourselves online? 

We can create and co-create, organise, innovate and even re-invent ourselves using the internet and social media.  In addition, if we use it as a clearly defined group, it may be possible, as citizens, to affect wider community change:

Much has been made of the use of social media to spark and support political action, particularly in the Arab Spring and the OWS (Occupy Wall Street) protest (see Howard et al, 2011 and Ratto and Boler, 2014).

How accurate are reports of social media use in revolutions and protests?

It is certainly true that both the Arab Spring and OWS movements generated large amounts of social media traffic: Figure 1 shows the numbers of Tweets sent related to Occupy Wall Street between September 2011 and September 2012 (vertical blue bars represent missing streaming Twitter API data), while Facebook has been described as “the GPS for this (Arab Spring) revolution” (Rosen, 2011).

ows

Figure 1, (Conover et al, 2013, p.3)

However…

although individual protesters were certainly able to represent themselves, and join together, via social media, the actual effects on the revolution itself are unclear at best.  Pfeffer and Carley, 2012, found “the pattern of spread of the (Arab Spring) revolutions was not related to the pattern of social media usage” and, interestingly, that traditional media makes a link between social media and revolution only when the movement is successful, suggesting the belief in the efficacy of social media during revolutions may be skewed (Pfeffer and Carley, 2012, no pagination).

Also, are we actually free when we use social media?

There is a question over the extent to which our ‘free’ (in all senses of the word) use of the internet, and social media in particular, is actually controlled and manipulated by content management strategies employed by social media corporations.  Toby Miller is cited in ‘Silly citizenship’ for his proposal of cultural citizenship as ‘the right to know and speak’(Miller, 2006, p.35).  Clearly, we can communicate and learn from others online.

However, we do not always have a free choice in how we communicate: social media corporations remove activist content, change the architecture of platforms (thereby affecting communication methods) and, ironically, rely on community monitoring of content, which can (and has been) subsequently abused by state agents and supporters (Poell, 2014, p.198).

Does any approach actually work well?

There are ways to communicate politically online that are successful.  As argued by Hartley (2010), DIY/DIWO (Do It Yourself, Do It With Others) activism allows the altering of mainstream content to reflect political narratives, providing new meanings and ideas, and allowing new self and group representation.  For example:

It seems to be only when this individual ‘parody and critique’ morphs into social mobilisation at the macro level that censorship occurs, as witnessed in China and Iran (Poell, 2014, p.196).

So, in conclusion…

It would be fair to state that online social networks certainly offer opportunities for us to learn, exchange and create.  However, this effect seems to be limited – for real, large-scale, social change to occur, activists, citizens and communities must come together, both on and offline, in order to become truly visible.

References:

Coffin, P. 2016.  Justin Bieber – Sorry (Donald Trump parody).   [Online]. [Accessed 15th October 2016].  Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-hAq9ro7StU

Conover, M. D., Ferrara, E., Menczer, F., & Flammini, A. (2013). The digital evolution of Occupy Wall Street. PLoS ONE, 8(5). pp.1-5

Hartley J. 2010. Silly citizenship. Critical Discourse Studies. 7(4),pp.233–248

Howard, P. N., A. Duffy, D. Freelon, M. Hussain, W. Mari, and M. Mazaid. 2011. Opening Closed Regimes: What Was the Role of Social Media during the Arab Spring Project on Information Technology and Political Islam. Seattle: Department of Communication, University of Washington.

Miller, T. (2006). Cultural citizenship. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press

Pfeffer, Jürgen & Carley, Kathleen M. (2012). Social Networks, Social Media, Social Change. In: D. D. Schmorrow, D.M. Nicholson (eds), Advances in Design for Cross-Cultural Activities Part II. CRC Press, pp.273-282.

Poell, T. (2014). Social Media Activism and State Censorship. In: Social Media, Politics and the State: Protests, Revolutions, Riots, Crime and Policing in an Age of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, edited by D. Trottier & C. Fuchs. 189-206. London: Routledge.

Ratto, M. and Boler, M. 2014. DIY citizenship: critical making and social media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rosen, J. 2011. So, Was Facebook Responsible for the Arab Spring After All? The Atlantic.  [Online]. [Accessed 15th October 2016].  Available from: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/09/so-was-facebook-responsible-for-the-arab-spring-after-all/244314/

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