Social Networks and Frameworks of Activism
For nearly ten years now, media analysts and commentators like Tim O’Reilly have sung the praises of Web 2.0 and social media. The new World Wide Web, characterised by its writerly, inclusive and connective nature, was to democratize the Internet and society around it to a degree hitherto unseen. Web 2.0 was to place to end user in the position of the producer, change the subject into the acting agent and make leaders out of us all. Of course O’Reilly and others of his ilk were more interested in finding ways to monetize this new structure than in fulfilling utopian ideas. Maybe it was their success in doing so, or maybe we keep overestimating the average internet users’ will to engage in more than distraction and entertainment, but nothing much has changed these past years save for the supplanting of content producing sites by aggregation networks. That is, until recently.
These past weeks, the userbase of Reddit.com has managed to organise themselves and effect, through a combined effort, actual real world result on an unprecedented scale. With a single movement they have managed to influence mainstream media and politics and finally fulfilled some of the promise of Web 2.0 and social media.
Following a rally organized by rightwing TV pundit Glenn Beck, a Reddit user proposed an idea for a rally by talk show host and satirist Stephen Colbert. The Reddit community and much of rational thinking USA saw Beck’s rally as insincere and narcissistic. The hubris of holding a rally on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington and having his speech on the same place as King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” was hard to ignore, let alone the many times where Beck actually directly and favourably compared himself to King. The rally attracted about 80 000 people according to independent estimates.
Stephen Colbert’s persona mimics and satirizes extremely partisan, self-aggrandizing pundits like Beck and Bill O’Reilly. So a Reddit user came up with the idea of Colbert holding a rally to both satirize Beck’s rally and humiliating Beck by attracting a larger crowd. The idea quickly took hold in the community, and a sub-Reddit and a Facebook page were made to organise the efforts of the community in realizing the rally. The movement was quickly picked up and reported on by several blogs. Three weeks later, Stephen Colbert and fellow satirist and producer of Colbert’s show, Jon Stewart, announced their rallies. When doing so, the explicitly named Reddit as the source of the rally.
So it seems that finally the establishment is listening, instead of just trying to cash in on the newest hype in an effort to remain relevant. No longer are social media relegated to desperate ploys for attracting viewers, as in CNN’s use of Twitter to ask for comments on running stories. A community has managed to get their agenda realized on a grand scale. But what does this entail for social media? Is this an indication of shifting power relations, or just a new co-opting of community effort by dominant institutions? Are we finally seeing a more democratic, decentralized Internet or just new avenues for promotion and advertising? Are we moving towards a network of edges without nodes, or are nodes becoming more important in a digital environment of overpopulation an underrepresentation? Is a rhizomatic ordering even really possible or desirable?
These are all important questions to ask if we wish to fulfil the promise that social media hold, and that the Reddit community has shown a glimpse of. Drawing upon the works of Foucault, Galloway, Lovink, Manovich and others, we can attempt to embark upon this inquiry. The goal of such a research would be to understand the complex network of relations underlying social media and connecting online communities, and attempting to provide a template for creating and maintaining communities free from subjection by institutional or corporate agendas.
Deleuze, Gilles & Felix Guarrari. A Thousand Plateaus . London: Continuum, 1987.
Foucault, Michel. “The Subject and Power”. Critical Inquiry, vol. 9, no. 4 (summer 1982) pp. 775-795.
Galloway, Alexander & Eugene Thacker. “Protocol, Control, and Networks” (2004)
Lovink, Geert. Zero Comments. New York: Routledge, 2008.
Manovich, Lev. “Social Media: Tactics as Strategies”