Have you ever taken photos at an event — with the thought that you would later post them to Facebook? Maybe you even loaded them from your smartphone while the event was still in progress? Have you ever Tweeted from a protest? Have you ever found yourself thinking about how you would translate something you were experiencing into a status update?
I’ll cop to all of the above.
In my post last week (Internet: R.I.P. Democracy?) I discussed Jodi Dean’s Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics. As the title of her article suggests, Dean argues that the virtual world—with its incredibly abundant circulation of information—is foreclosing on real-world political action. Sharing, “liking”, or commenting on a political article can create the illusion of taking action, as can blogging, signing an online petition, and countless other virtual political expressions. These forms give us a feeling of participation, but our virtual “contributions” are drowned in “a massive stream of content” that nobody—let alone anybody in power—actually has to respond to.
Today I want to suggest that this illusion does not only impact people whose political activity is limited to the virtual world. I think it also negatively affects the thinking of many people who are very active “on the ground” and in the streets. During real-world actions—protests, marches, occupations, etc.—we’re already thinking about their virtual representations. We’re Tweeting, live-streaming, posting photos, and updating our statuses in real time. It’s not that we shouldn’t be thinking about the strategic projections and representations of our actions and our movements. We should definitely be doing so. How movements are perceived is critically important. The problem is that the cluster structure of the virtual world shifts who our audience is. Our audience doesn’t just shift; it shrinks. And it doesn’t just shrink; it becomes just us. We ourselves become our only audience.
Here’s Jodi Dean:
…as a number of commentators have worried for a while now, opportunities to customize the news and announcements one reads – not to mention the already undigestible amount of information available on topics in which one is deeply interested – contribute to the segmentation and isolation of users within bubbles of opinions with which they already agree.
The problem of likeminded activist circles talking mostly to ourselves existed pre-Information Age. First, it’s a manifestation of a broader human pattern (yes, we’re human!) where groups bond internally and create distinctive culture that can alienate them from other groups. Add to that a trend over the past several decades of likeminded clustering in US society. These two patterns had already made it challenging for social movement groups to connect to a broad audience — sometimes even to be inclined to try to connect. The Internet feeds these patterns by making it easier for people to find what they are drawn to — and to tune out everything else.
Increasingly we live in personalized information universes, where we are mostly fed what we already agree with. Eli Pariser calls this the filter bubble. Here’s Pariser in his book (The Filter Bubble):
…the Internet has unleashed the coordinated energy of a whole new generation of activists—it’s easier than ever to find people who share your political passions. But while it’s easier than ever to bring a group of people together, as personalization advances it’ll become harder for any given group to reach a broad audience. In some ways, personalization poses a threat to public life itself.
It will be “harder for any given group to reach a broad audience” because everyone will be surrounding themselves with their preferred information — so it will be more and more difficult to burst through people’s bubbles. I’m suggesting that it may also be increasingly difficult to reach a broad audience because we are less and less inclined to even try.
Here’s why. In the virtual world we are mostly our own audience (i.e. we are mostly communicating with people like us). And most of us spend a great deal of time and mental energy interacting with the virtual world. So much so that we increasingly view our real-world actions through a lens of how we will project them—our actions, our movements, our selves—and how they will be perceived in the virtual world. This lens functions not only in real time during an action; it also affects our thinking beforehand as we plan our actions. Thus, we are increasingly planning our actions with ourselves in mind as the intended audience. That is to say we are thinking ahead, anticipating our own reactions to seeing our actions reflected back to us on the Internet.
This is something like thinking about oneself looking at oneself in a mirror, which is close to the definition of narcissism. It’s not narcissism on an individual level (except when it sometimes is!); it’s a group-level narcissism. It’s what happens when a group is so caught up in itself that it does not even know how to really consider the agendas, identities, perceptions, etc. of others (and other groups).
And that kind of consideration is essential to effective political mobilization.