Enabler or dictator? Does social media tell us how to behave, or help us make our own choices?

Joss Hands, in his book @ is for activism has examined various theories of technology, veering from technological determinism to social constructionism (Hoofd, 2012), and positions himself somewhere between the two.  He has said subsequently that technology (and the internet specifically) creates constraints, but also possibilities (Hands, 2015).  These constraints are partly the nature of the technology itself – if you can do one thing, then it follows something else is excluded – and partly as a result of having contemporary technology linked to capitalism (Hoofd, 2012), which limits its free usage.

So, what are the possibilities? If we look at the internet, as opposed to earlier technologies, there are several fundamental differences – it is a scale free network i.e. “any node (or person/group) can have limitless connections (Hands, 2015), each of the nodes can not only receive but also broadcast, and there is “no overall centre to the network, making it difficult to control” (Hands, 2015).

All of these differences lend themselves to activism – to changing the status quo.  Much has been written about social media and uprisings, including The Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street.  However, despite the compelling headlines, “Calling something a Facebook Revolution or Twitter Revolt…does not help us better understand the causes and consequences of modern political engagement” (Howard, 2013), and there is little evidence that social media causes revolutions in any meaningful way.

However, it can offer a number of very useful tools for those seeking change.  As a scale free network, it is possible for a few individuals to contact many, and arrange offline, on the street protests, which would be very difficult to organise otherwise.  Note, these actions would not be impossible without social media (in Egypt, where only 20% of people had access to the internet, activists used taxis drivers to gossip and spread word of protests (How Facebook changed the world, 2011)), but they would have been considerably lessened in scale and predictability.

The availability of social media on mobile devices also means that, for the first time, instant, tangible proof of revolutionary action (and its repression) can be shared with many others around the world – “when people march they stay connected” (Howard, 2013).  This is turn can lead to more people becoming encouraged to join protests and prevent cover-ups.  Again, social media itself does not create the desire to join the protests.  What it can do is provide a medium to channel social disquiet and the information needed to take direct action.

I would certainly argue that activism in particular provides an example where we (by and large) dominate the technology of social media – we are able to do things with it and “achieve political aims not envisioned by (its makers)” (Hands, 2011, p.29).  The question now is the extent to which social media can aid in the longer term – social taboos are harder to break (Atef, 2015), and revolutions cannot always be sustained.

References:

Atef, N. 2011. Social media culture in Arab spring Countries.  [Online]. [Accessed 7th November 2016]. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jrIZoBSApKs&feature=youtu.be

Digital Media and Political Activism – Dr. Joss Hands at Cafe Diplo. 2015. Cafe Diplo. [Online]. [Accessed 7th November 2016]. Available from: https://www.mixcloud.com/CafeDiplo/digital-media-and-political-activism-dr-joss-hands-at-cafe-diplo-2nd-february-2015-london/

Hands, J. 2011. @ is for Activism: Dissent, Resistance and Rebellion in a Digital Culture. London: Pluto Press

Hoofd, I. 2012. The mechanics of the liberatory promise: a review of Joss Hands’s @ Is for activism. Cultural Politics. 8(1), p.157-162

Howard, P.  2013. When Does Digital Activism Pack a Punch? Symposium magazine. [Online]. [Accessed 7th November 2016].  Available from: http://www.symposium-magazine.com/when-does-digital-activism-pack-a-punch/#disqus_thread

How Facebook changed the world: The Arab Spring. 2011. BBC Two.  Monday 5th September. 21:00.

 

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