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Experiments in democracy

By Perri Campbell - posted Monday, 29 October 2012


'Today, nerds, students, creeps, outlaws, rebels, moms, fans, church mice, good-time Charlies, middle managers, senior citizens, starlets, presidents and corporate predators all make their home on the Web. In spite of consensus about the dangers of Web vertigo and the importance of curation, walled gardens online - like the one Facebook purports to represent - are few. The Web is minimally controlled pandemonium' (Virginia Heffman).

Since social media – or Web 2.0 – blossomed around 2004 with the emergence of Facebook, people have taken up the possibility of accelerated communication with known and unknown others online. This type of communication has had a range of outcomes and has provoked many different reactions in the public sphere. While some have supported social media as an innovation in communication, others have wondered if social media is 'bad for us'.

John Maritotti (author of the Chinese Conspiracy and 'cyber-attack expert') warns that social media is an invitation to 'at best, uncontrolled and permanent over-exposure and at worst, identity theft or misuse'. The problem of over-exposure can be likened to 'Technology Overload' according to well-known social theorist Sherry Turkle. Turkle fears that 'computer culture' can lead to a desire for constant connection, which can be bad she says 'because kids are growing up who cannot tolerate solitude'.

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Over the past year there have been many stories in the media about cyber bullying, slanderous attacks via twitter and online predators. Cyber bullying or hostile or aggressive tweets can have disastrous effects on young people's lives in particular. James Temple warns that 'online predators' have used the internet to locate young victims, with the task simplified by social networks and mobile apps that roughly indicate the location of users. In many ways, digital spaces reflect the chaos of an unruly, unregulated city of millions. And sometimes the city is dangerous – sometimes social media is anti-social.

As well as limitations and dangers, there are possibilities and benefits for online communication. But the question 'What is social media really capable of?' is really a question of what we are capable of online. Over the last few years there have been some momentous uses of social media, which point to the possibilities of this space and the limitations people encounter offline.

For instance, the Occupy movement and Arab Revolutions used digital spaces to their advantage, mobilizing and accelerating communication to support their cause. Social theorist Noam Chomsky says that the Occupy movement altered the landscape for debates about wealth and poverty. Things that were 'behind the scenes' are now up front and on the national agenda, impacting upon the media, public awareness and language itself. Things like 'the imagery of the 99 percent and the 1 percent; and the dramatic facts of sharply rising inequality over the past roughly 30 years, with wealth being concentrated in actually a small fraction of 1 percent of the population'. While the protests happened in the streets, digital spaces provided room for people to come together around specific issues. As Scott Talan (assistant professor of communication at American University Online) suggests 'people still use old media to watch the debates, but they use social networks and other new media to have influence, voice opinions and be involved'.

Young adult literature fans have also harnessed digital technology to engage with political and social debates. According to Kylie Northover (the Saturday Times) many young people 'have limited disposable income and can't vote, but today's teenagers are wielding more power than ever before, and, increasingly, are helping to shape the political landscape. And interestingly, pop culture, in particular young adult literature, is one of the main vehicles - along with social media - propelling these changes'.

Take the Harry Potter Alliance – it has one of the world's largest fan bases and mixes politics with fantasy in on and offline spaces for good causes. The Alliance fights the 'Dark Arts' of the real world – human rights abuses, inequality, illiteracy – just as Potter and his friends do in the fantasy word. The Harry Potter Alliance created the Imagine Better Project. Another global community of mostly teenagers and young adults called Project for Awesome (P4A) is run by two brothers – Hank and John Green. P4A inundated YouTube with videos promoting NPOs to get their message across. In 2010 and 2011 P4A raised over $100,000 for charity. Social media provides young people with visibility, voice and reach. As individuals unite around unique interests fan bases build and gain momentum taking up a space of their own in a noisy world.

In many respects, the power and potential of social media resides in its capacity to facilitate experimental behaviour and experimental politics. Online, people test out ways of being – being young, being a man or a woman, being a teenager, a mother. The difference is that the norms and consequences we encounter offline are not necessarily reinforced online – or at least not in the same ways. Online we can shape ourselvesthrough a different relationship to those codes of conduct, peer groups, pressures, friends, family or co-workers and the injunctions that facilitate societal norms.

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While some interpret social media as an opportunity to speak out, mobilise and contest political processes, others see chaos through an unregulated city of millions. Social media and other digital spaces have their pros and cons. Like any populated area we can encounter danger in the digital wilderness. This is a space in which we have the opportunity to know ourselves and others in new and immediate ways.

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About the Author

Perri Campbell is a Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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