Imagined Communities, Social Media, and the Faculty

The faculty in the digital sphere.
By Adeline Koh

Can social media cause revolutions? The role that Twitter and Facebook played in uprisings ranging from the Arab Spring to the global Occupy movement have led some to say that they can. Many attribute the rise of these movements to social media, which act as accelerants, allowing people to circumvent mainstream media censorship and mobilize quickly. Clay Shirky, an expert in Internet culture, claims that these tools, and the channels that they open, provide new means of creating democracy. He argues that “the networked population is gaining greater access to information, more opportunities to engage in public speech, and an enhanced ability to undertake collective action.”

Critics of social media say otherwise. They warn against the rise of “slacktivism,” or activism for slackers. In their view, clicking “like” on a Facebook update or retweeting a post on Twitter is nothing more than “feel-good activism” that creates what one critic, Evgeny Morozov, describes as “an illusion of having a meaningful impact on the world without demanding anything more than joining a Facebook group.” They caution that many of the social media platforms used in activist work are owned by corporations that gather information about users, allowing online activism to be “harvested” for marketable data. These critics hasten to remind us of the power of people rather than of tools, but in so doing, they neglect the importance of political community and its connections to the creation of political consciousness.

The idea that media and communication become political through the explicit community that they create was put forth by the political scientist Benedict Anderson in his groundbreaking book Imagined Communities, which argues that the invention of the newspaper resulted in the creation of a new type of political community that would bring nationalism—and revolution—into being. Too often, critics separate technology and people, eliding the fact that the technology helps shape how people imagine their relationships with one another. Such imagined communities, to use Anderson’s terminology, are profoundly political spaces. Social media, as part of the networked public sphere, have created new discourses for imagining community. These new imagined communities have a great deal of political potential as well as limits.

The Networked Public Sphere

The idea that the medium of print fostered the development of democracy by creating the “public sphere” comes from the work of the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. In his book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas argues that the printing press helped democratize Europe by providing space for discussion among engaged citizens.

Anderson’s Imagined Communities builds on this understanding of public space and emphasizes the ways certain forms of media give rise to certain types of political community. The book’s thesis is that “print capitalism” gave rise to nationalism as people began to imagine their relationships with one another in new ways. Drawing on the work of the cultural critic Walter Benjamin, Anderson argues that the conception of time in print capitalism—what Benjamin calls “homogeneous, empty time”—is a radical departure from the religious time of the Middle Ages (“simultaneous, messianic time”). In religious time, Anderson claims, anachronism is irrelevant because the concept of the relentless progress of years, months, and days does not exist. He argues that “the mediaeval Christian mind had no conception of history as an endless chain of cause and effect or of radical separations between past and present.”

The representational shift from “simultaneous, messianic time” to “homogeneous, empty time” allowed the idea of the nation to take root. Noting that an American would never meet or even know the names of more than a handful of all the other Americans who exist, Anderson understood that the American would nonetheless have confidence in their existence and awareness of their progress through time. For Anderson, “the idea of a sociological organism moving calendrically through homogeneous, empty time is a precise analogue of the idea of a nation, which is conceived of as a solid community moving steadily down (or up) history.”

The Internet—as a “networked public sphere”— has dramatically augmented the possibilities of political communities that can form through similar changes in the concepts of time. The networks of communication supported by the Internet include narrower modes such as e-mail as well as ones that have potentially huge audiences, such as Twitter.

As legal scholar Yochai Benkler has observed, the fundamental differences between the “networked public sphere” and the traditional media center on network architecture and the costs of being a speaker or publisher. In print capitalism, the costs of publication are high because print takes up physical space and materials. For this reason, there are few outlets for publication, and publishers act as gatekeepers. But the architecture of the networked public sphere is completely different from print capitalism—anyone can, at minimal cost, become a publisher or curator of information, whether through microblogging services such as Twitter or platforms such as Blogger or WordPress.

The networked public sphere thus affords a radically different sense of community because it generates more avenues for conversation. Each person in this networked architecture is now a potential producer of information, not merely a consumer. The public sphere has seen a major paradigm shift as passive consumers have become potential producers. In print capitalism, public conversation can take place only through limited outlets that are usually subject to editorial review. In the networked public sphere, however, individuals with little political or social power have the ability to join a conversation and affect mass opinion, as trending hashtags in recent years have illustrated.

This shift from passive consumer to active producer has tremendous implications for academics, both outside disciplines of study and within them. The critical foundations of postcolonial studies, for example, rely on what philosopher V. Y. Mudimbe called “rewriting the colonial library,” or intervening in and changing the fixed sets of texts and representations of colonized people that were produced primarily by Europeans. The rapidly decreasing cost of publishing offers postcolonial writers and scholars a tremendous opportunity to reshape the colonial library as the world’s knowledge shifts from print to digital media. Indeed, websites and projects such as Africa Is a Country, Making Britain: How South Asians Shaped the Nation, the Rewriting Wikipedia Project, and Digitizing Chinese Englishmen are digital contributions to a larger endeavor to “decolonize the archive” by providing alternative ways of representing people of color and people of non-European descent around the world. These efforts are creating alternative maps of the ethnic, racial, and cultural identities shaped by global movements of people and information.

The networked public sphere also cuts across boundaries of space and time, allowing for different permutations of identification with others. While Anderson’s fictional American uses the idea of a “nation” of individuals connected in empty, homogeneous time to find commonality with people he does not know and with whom he otherwise has no relationship, social media afford spaces for connection over broader, unimagined, and even ephemeral phenomena. Such connection can be seen in the live-tweeting of the World Cup in 2014, in which individual users could find a new type of immediate connectedness to groups of people all over the world who were participating in the same event. The same dynamic can be observed in the global Occupy movement, which began as Occupy Wall Street in New York’s Zuccotti Park and spun off to other locations around the world. The movement’s rapid growth, which occurred despite underreporting in the mainstream media, indicates the degree to which social media have become the new public sphere. Through its interactive nature, whereby every account becomes a publishing platform, social media bring new meaning to anthropologist Arjun Appadurai’s notion of “mediascapes,” or interconnected global ideological and cultural landscapes.

Social media also create asynchronous communities around issues and interests. For example, Facebook and Google Plus groups allow people to join and take part in conversations over time, and in the Reddit community, users can read about and post responses to issues that form pages on a topic.

This fluidity of exchange and identification within the networked public sphere also presents an opportunity for faculty members to participate in creating new modes of community. Social media can provide a fruitful space in which to educate the public in numerous areas.

A Return to Marx

Perhaps the question with which this article began—can social media cause revolutions?—is not the right one to ask. A more productive approach might be to investigate the sorts of worldviews and communities afforded by social media, which can have a huge, or minimal, political impact.

Most criticism of the political efficacy of social media, however, focuses on the limitations of the tools. Critics of “slacktivism” assume that, because participants can sign up to support a movement at very little opportunity cost, the impact of their political activity will be limited. They argue that radical political actions require stronger ties than social media can provide. This dismissive view has its roots in a strain of Marxist thought that regards media tactics as mere “spectacle” and argues that real activism takes place on the street. Such fetishization of the “real,” however, ignores one of Marx’s central premises—that a revolutionary movement should show people their true relationship to the means of production. For Marx, obscuring or confusing this relationship results in alienation—seen, for example, in the well-known example of commodity fetishism. Commodities represent the alienated labor of people; the commodity is transformed into a power that rules over them as though it exists above them, although its state is actually derived from them.

This is why the control of information—either directly, as in authoritarian regimes, or indirectly, through the “manufacture of consent” in liberal democratic regimes—has been such a potent force throughout world history. Information control helps to create narratives about these relationships between groups of people and the means of production; it helps to sell stories and to naturalize them. Indeed, the critique of information control as political endeavor underwrites much of postcolonial thought. As Edward Said tersely claimed in Orientalism, “from travelers’ tales . . . colonies were created.”

Correspondingly, much Western Marxist thought focuses on the connection between discursive alienation and exploitation. In their essay “The Culture Industry,” Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer argue that the mass media are used in capitalist societies to alienate workers from their conditions of exploitation, so that they will continue to be docile in their jobs. When workers consume popular culture, they are lured into a false sense of contentment, which allows them to continue to be exploited without complaint. Forms of media that developed in opposition to the mass media, such as the Third Cinema movement in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, were aimed precisely at dismantling this form of alienation so that the exploited could begin to see their true relationship with the means of production and thus resist their own exploitation.

Just as film can be used to entertain and alienate, so can it be used to reorient and educate. The same is true for social media. Social media offer new ways to break through alienation. Through social media, individuals can align themselves with people they would not have otherwise known, and this creates a new political possibility—and a useful space for postcolonial intervention. Imagine, for example, if it were possible to change those narratives of European travelers’ tales Said describes—could the same justifications for imperialism still hold?

A more pressing critique of the use of social media for political goals, however, focuses on their co-optation by the state and their use by the private corporations that produce social media platforms to gather data about users. The co-optation of activist social media platforms also extends beyond the state. In “Operation Lollipop” in 2014, men’s rights activists masqueraded as feminists of color on Twitter to sow discord among feminist activists. In other instances, people have deliberately released misinformation on social media about unfolding events. Given that much postcolonial critique relies on the idea that colonial knowledge is a form of misinformation, postcolonial critics could make a useful contribution to the discussion of social media by offering a more complex reading of misinformation and its political purposes.

Postcolonial Studies and Social Media

Ultimately, social media have created not revolutions but a political space for different communities to be imagined into existence. Pundits who argue about whether social media cause revolutions do not pay enough attention to the ideological territory that is carved out by revolutions—in Anderson’s case, nations, and in the case of social media, thinking with and beyond the nation. 

Postcolonialism has complicated our understandings of the relationship of domination and control between colonizer and colonized. Much anticolonial and postcolonial criticism has been dedicated to “unpacking” the ways in which dominant ideological discourses encourage forms of social alienation.

We need to move the social space in which we fight this battle from postcolonial studies’ traditional territory, the colonial library of print, to the networked public sphere. Postcolonial studies has much to contribute to our understanding of digital knowledge hierarchies and networks. As faculty members, our audience is a younger generation that has grown up in a world where the Internet and other forms of networked communication have always existed. Our goals should be to shift our energies to the digital sphere, to raise questions about the unconscious assumptions of these digital platforms, to produce content that subverts the colonial library, and to educate others about contributing to knowledge in the networked public sphere. 

Adeline Koh is an associate professor at Stockton University, an independent web designer, and the founder of a skin-care product company, Sabbatical Beauty. She is passionate about teaching, web design, technology, and the darker side of tech: inequality and oppression. Her e-mail address is [email protected].