Friday, December 23, 2011

Democracy in the age of Viral Reality - John Postill

Democracy in the age of viral reality (and 5) « media/anthropology

Democracy in the age of viral reality (and 5)

December 16, 2011

Continued from Democracy in the age of viral reality (4)


In his anthropological study of the free software movement, Chris Kelty (2008) concludes that this movement signals a global reconfiguration of power/knowledge relations that goes well beyond the field of software design. This shift rests on the C21 idea of knowledge as living and in flux rather than final or static, and on the technical ease with which changes to a text can now be made and shared ‘in real time’ (2008: 280). However, adds Kelty, the diffusion and ‘modulation’ of free software principles and practices to other fields will take time, particularly in conservative fields such as academia with in-built defence mechanisms.

Spain’s indignados and their international comrades in the #Occupy movement are modulating the free software subculture in potentially revolutionary ways. They have virally expanded the space of techno-political practice and political engagement. The movement’s massively distributed modulation of hacker ideals and practices demonstrates the power of real-time, open collaborations amongst like-minded citizens. Ironically, this colossal political experiment in open/free culture has been greatly aided by the widespread use of corporate platforms such as YouTube, Flickr, Facebook and Twitter.

A media epidemiographic perspective can help us gauge the implications of these developments for the future of representative democracy in the age of viral reality. It can do so in number of ways. First, this approach can shed light on the complex articulations between co-present assemblies and online exchanges via Twitter and other platforms. We have just reported claims about the inseparability of these domains as well as inklings about their specific affordances (e.g. the idea that Twitter is where the collective mood is created via hahstags). These claims need to be substantiated through multi-sited ethnographic research that pays careful attention to the selective uses of viral and non-viral contents across settings, both online and offline. Second, a media epidemiographic approach can track the spread and appropriation of digital contents across the porous media professional vs. amateur divide. Of particular importance here are the viral practices of interstitial agents such as bloggers, intellectuals and celebrities who act as ‘new mediators’ and articulators of the movement’s various media worlds. Finally, this research strategy can help with the urgent need to rethink our models of public discourse and democratic participation by highlighting the importance of ephemeral nanostories and other ‘small genres’ (Spitulnik 1996).

As Spain’s indignados are wont of saying, this is only the beginning. Future scholarship in this area should hack the framework presented earlier, consisting of the working concepts ‘viral campaigns’, ‘campaign virals’, ‘viral niches’ and ‘sustainable virals’, and put the resulting version to the test through comparative studies of protest movements and other forms of social unrest worldwide. Given its subject-matter, it is only fair that future research should strive to be open, collaborative, democratic and virally distributed.

Photo credit: AFP


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