Romancing the Connection: The Allure of Democracy Through Social Media

Curator's Note

We are just over a year removed from the revolutions of the Arab Spring. Our media spent a lot of their time during those revolutions covering how social networks were allowing citizen activists to spread the word about what had been done to them. For those of us who watched the revolutions unfold on our computers and televisions, the allure of the stories trumpeting the revolutionary power of social media largely came from our desire for a sense of justice in the world. The all-seeing connected eye of the web promised to uncover the suffering of the voiceless oppressed, and the stories about uprisings in the Middle East struck hopeful tones about this new power individual citizens had to illuminate the world.

Langdon Winner, in critiquing the proponents of the "computer revolution" of the 1980’s, wrote that "Computer romanticism is merely the latest version of the nineteenth and twentieth century that has always expected to generate freedom, democracy, and justice through sheer material abundance." If Winner was right in his critique of faith in the democractic power of the connected personal computer that was so vogue in the 1980’s, can his criticisms be fairly applied to our new love, connectivity romanticism? In many ways, our new romance is a faster, more vocal version of the love of democratic computing that began thirty years ago. We still fall into the belief that there is, in Winner’s words, “an automatic, positive link between knowledge and power, especially power in a social or political sense.”

Does focusing on the channels through which injustice is revealed actually  push aside a more useful dialogue about the roots of the injustices which provoke and sustain a revolution? Perhaps one could argue that stories age very quickly in a news world built on hourly updates, and the social media “angle” is simply one way of prolonging the life of a story that would otherwise fade from our memories too quickly. Such an argument still assumes that there is significant value in having an awareness of what’s happening in the world, however vague. We can't measure the democratic power of a few individuals with deep knowledge of a conflict against a multitude of people with a vague but constant awareness of an injustice, but I doubt that there can ever be such a thing as a shallow revolution.


The social media angle in the news media almost trivializes the revolution itself--the use of Twitter is more important than the injustices being fought.  And  yet, it may also serve to bind one culture to another that is being in some way repressed.  In a sense, the fact that everyone uses Twitter (or other social media) seems to emphasize the important realization that we aren't all so different--if we're all on Facebook, aren't we all brothers?  That assertion may also trivialize these revolutionary events, but as you suggest, it does bring a greater awareness and even empathy.  

There's an almost inarguably democratic feeling you get when you realize that you can be "friends" with the President on Facebook. I'm reminded of what Warhol said about how America is great because you can buy a coke, and you know it's going to be the exact same coke that the President of the United States is drinking. But such an appeal to pathos is a built on civic stability. The alluring notion that equality means the people in power may share something of your own life experience, however minor, can't really be all that important in the midst of total revolution.

I think this "brotherhood" notion also trivializes the commercial imperative of most social media. With broadcast and print models of advertising not working for Facebook (as my students constantly remind me), and Twitter not really even pursuing that path, commercial messages must be embedded throughout the supposedly interpersonal messages and relationships fostered--to the extent that users of these media themselves are socialized to communicate in the language of advertising.How far removed will these media be from older media that moved away from real news coverage (especially global issues) and began closing  international news bureaus in favor of celebrity culture?

I think that question is absolutely critical. If there is some kind of changing of the guard going on with this new technology, then what inherent differences between it and the old tech make it immediately better from a democratic perspective? As far as I can tell, we still basically need intelligent, passionately moral people telling us about what's going on in the world, and that goes for whether you're trying to overthrow your government or live well in a stable society. The best kind of communicative media are those which elevate the voices of those people. Does the "new" internet experience (whether through Google, Wikipedia, or searching TED Talks by popularity) do that? Does getting your daily information through your Facebook feed, in the end, tell you "better" things about the world than the media it supposedly is pushing aside?

As I read Jeremy Carter's last comment, I'm reminded of Jeremy Sarachan's comment on my own post from Monday.  Jeremy wondered if new media are not, in fact, increasingly contributing to our isolation rather than our connections.  Jeremy Carter's question about whether one's Facebook feed can tell you better things (I assume because, ostensibly, everyone's on Facebook and thus is a contributor to news and mainstream news is crumbling as an institution) requires that social media are not isolating us but are in fact connecting us.  And I'm not so sure about that.  Social media has a substantial potential to be dominated by the echo chamber that a lot of television and radio poltical broadcasting has become.  Isolated communities talking to one another.

I'd would also second Megan Mullen's critique of the 'brotherhood' assessment of social media as eliding the fundamentally commercial drive of most social media platforms, and also extend it by contesting the "inarguably democratic feeling you get when you realize you can be 'friends' with the President on Facebook", as Jeremy suggests.  I'll agree that if one tries really hard, one can imagine some element of equality (similar to Warhol's very commercial assessment of equality), but I'm not sure that a Facebook connection with the President is in any way democratic.  The likelihood there is any contact with Barack Obama (as opposed to a White House intern or other staffer) is low.  At the risk of channeling Malcolm Gladwell (who i actually think misreads social media significantly), the real lesson of the Arab Spring is: 1) communication of powerful messages that leveraged both deeply held emotions and deep cultural frames occured in social media; 2) the networks of connection of social media allowed for the passing along of this information, side-stepping state-controlled media; and 3) the developing social/political networks used Facebook (and Twitter) to get people into the street.  But Facebook didn't get them in the street--the messages carried on Facebook, along with the ability to recognize the numbers of people sharing those opinions and attitudes, got people in the streets.

This post calls to mind the Kony 2012 campaign headed by the organization Invisible Children in order to raise 'awareness' of the injustice in Uganda put forth by Joseph Kony. Awareness is here used loosely because, from what I gathered (on Facebook, nonetheless), is that many people simply jumped on the social activists' bandwagon, promoting Kony 2012 with a self-prescribed passion that backfired when someone asked them to explain what it was exactly that they were fighting for. 

The conflict here is that the Kony 2012 campaign was undoubtedly successful in truly educating at least some people about the issues, but for each one of these there was arguably somebody who didn't read more than half an article on Wikipedia about the Lord's Resistance Army, Kony, and/or Uganda. The question is: is it worth it?

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