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Вторник, 29 Декември 2015 08:20

The Personal is (Again) Political: Cyberagitators in Facebook

Ivaylo Ditchev

Abstract: Digital technologies have produced a new figure: the Facebook cyberactivist. Often a former blogger, s/he comments, forwards, parodies, mobilizes civic energies in real time. At that, his/her credibility and persuasiveness depend mainly on authentic emotion. What could this comeback of the Kantian 'nature within ourselves' tell us about the new media world?

Keywords: cyberactivism, Facebook, citizenship, amateur journalism, digital culture

 

The title, of course, recalls the well-known feminist slogan, raised by Carol Hanisch in 1969 (Hanisch, 1969). For Hanisch the dichotomy between the personal and the political sets forth a dilemma: should the approach to women’s issues be political or therapeutic? Should we treat individual traumas or solve the problem with women’s social inequality? Today we can observe a similar politicization in the field of digital activism where personal passions, preferences and emotions become a battleground, if not a weapon, for new political struggles.

The object of analysis is rather ephemeral: I will discuss here the recent ascent of a specific Facebook (FB) power user in the last 3-4 years, who tries to play a sociopolitical role by commenting, parodying, forwarding and illustrating current events, thus mobilizing public response.

What becomes clear right from the start is that the specific features of such a user are rather ambiguous, and, to a great extent, dependent on the subjective network localization of the researcher. I interviewed and observed the FB activity of 20 people from various age groups,[1] choosing them by their relatively high activity (at least one post daily), by their ambition to influence, as well as by the reproduced content, which, as a rule, is related to social and political issues. Most of the respondents in this case study are from Sofia, have higher education, half of them being publicly known people.

Quantitative characteristics vary from country to country (the studies for Bulgaria are not many anyway). What is obvious, however, is that the use of FB, as well as of any other internet platform, is asymmetrical: a small minority of the users, amounting to around 5-30 percent, tends to generate most of the platform traffic (Hampton et al., 2011, 2012, quantitative analysis of the American FB).[2] As it is difficult to classify power users in quantitative terms, I will attempt a qualitative definition: power users are those FB users that aim at maintaining a particular public persona;[3] they use the platform for civic purposes.

The object of research seems ephemeral since in most cases digital citizens follow technological developments – they start with chatrooms and forums, then they create their own website, design a blog, and move on to Facebook and Twitter... – the fascination of the new fueling their social energy. Old forms do not die out instantly, thus the blogs of my interviewees, especially of those from the 30+ age group, are still regularly updated and supply content for their more syncretic FB pages; FB is connected to Twitter or Instagram. The global tendency is similar: the number of blogs, run by young people, drops by half, whereas the number of blogs related to the 30+ age group even goes up by a few percent. If you have a blog, you advertise it via FB.

Both blogs and FB pages are personal and non-institutionalized, aiming to assert one's individuality in the public sphere.[4] In theory, the blog is a long, theoretically endless opus; it constructs your own territory that guests can enter to comment on. A FB post is much shorter: the machine automatically curtails the superfluous text offering a "see more" option. Commonly, the text in the FB post comments on a link to digital or traditional media, a photo, or a video – something that Henry Jenkins calls convergence culture (Jenkins, 2006). The collaborative character of the new cultural genre is becoming more and more pronounced as most posts that refer to other links or messages are often commented on or liked. This, in fact, is the main factor contributing to their success.

Avtoportret G Dinev s Koreizi

Fig. 1. A self-portrait of George Dinev, an active FB uploader of collages, some of which are published below. Courtesy of the author. Here and later, the source: Here. 

The ratio between personal and forwarded content varies: I found different estimations – from entirely forwarded messages (as is the case with the most voyeuristic users) to a ratio of 70:30 in favour of personal creativity. As Kameliya[5] pointed out, personal posts bring more fame, but are harder to come up with. What matters, as we shall see further below, is the daily presence; yet, original posts are more time-consuming. Therefore, “the most common combination is other people’s thoughts plus mine”, says Momchil.

One of the least commented differences is that blogs usually have their history, which can be seen on the right. This makes them a sort of an “opus”, similar to traditional creative work, where the author is the owner of his/her past. Indeed, a FB post can easily direct you to the previous publications of the user and the chronology of your relationship with him. The thing is that the internet reading mode does not involve digressions into the past. The post is up-to-date as long as it is in the top news; the next feed takes it out of sight. Obviously, this changes the ways one can gain more prestige in FB, too. One of the interviewees focused my attention on the fact that while in forums there is a strict hierarchy between senior users and newcomers, who are not taken seriously, FB does not make such distinctions. It is not the most experienced, but the most ardent user who has most authority. As Andrew Keen puts it, in the era of “digital Darwinism” it is the loudest and the most persistent that survives (Keen, 2007).[6]

Let me add here that while blogging became massively commercialized, especially in the United States, where quite a few writers make a living thanks to the traffic they attract, in 2014, the FB situation is still undetermined: there are FB-based political campaigns and product ads but the job of the professional FB user is still under construction. Open advertisement ("X likes whiskey Y") was rare among the power users I observed, and when such thing happened, they often complained that it was the machine that produced the post against their will. Users are afraid of losing their reputation and, as a consequence, of being filtered. Moreover, there is the ambiguity of the “like” system, which is the basis of new advertising: you never know whether the user is amused by the nice pic or by the joke, or whether s/he is paid for pretending to be. Often, the first serves as an alibi for the second.

In fact, it would come as a surprise if anyone seriously invested in cyberactivism in Bulgaria, an important consideration being the limited impact of this activity (my interviewees reported to have between 1 000 and 2 000 friends). It is impressive how the social network gets politicized in crucial moments: e.g. on the day of the nuclear power referendum, most of my interviewees changed their profile photos to “YES” or “NO” signs, others expanded on their personal pros and cons, still others published (illegal) poll results. This leads us to the conclusion that the resource of “friends” can be easily instrumentalized, so that digitally influential people could channel public opinion. Given the intricate entanglement of friend networks, however, it is extremely difficult to maintain a definite stance. Even with such a simple YES/NO question, there would always be friends who were previously on your side and who now ardently convince you to change your opinion. Caught in the crossfire of your network, the thing you can do is go irrational and simply assert: “That is how I am, I will vote this way”. 

The professional use of FB usually plays a complementary role. Say, a politician (such as N. Mladenov, M. Kuneva, I. Kalfin) creates a personal FB account, where s/he can address voters in a more personal way and share opinions off the record that would otherwise sound inappropriate; followers are supposed to react immediately and emotionally, as if they participated in a private conversation. We could call it strategic spontaneity, formal informality.

Similarly, some professional journalists who know that “if they don’t paste in FB their text, video or radio interview, their circle of friends would not find about it” (Kolio, professional journalist). On the one hand, they are slightly contemptuous to the “stream of consciousness” of most FB users who tend to revive the political radicalism of the 1990s; on the other, these journalists go on FB to get information about the tendencies in the society in a somewhat cynical and voyeuristic way. For professionals FB is an imaginary world that parasitizes on traditional media; contrariwise, for FB users the real source of information is the social network, whereas paid journalism has lost its freedom and spies on selfless digital citizen sources.

Last but not least, the most important paraprofessional use of FB seems to come from the NGO sector. Its actors regularly tend to complement their project activities such as initiating debates, spreading information and mobilizing civil society through FB posts. It is not uncommon that FB activism is included in the project proposals right from the start. Two of the interviewees claimed that their FB activity was by no means personal and that they detested those FB users who posted photos of cute kittens or shared what they had for breakfast. Mikhail uses the platform to work for his student organization; Tsveti defines her activity as “a purposeful communication policy” of her NGO. Oddly enough, the institutional websites of these two organizations seem boring, static and scarcely visited. A personal post on the other hand “has a different dynamic” (Tsveti); people get motivated by other people, by their emotions, indignations, and surprises. The hope is that once hooked by a personal post, people will visit the institutional website to familiarize themselves with some of the project activities. As in the case of advertising, direct references to the latter should be rare, because your “friends” might begin to suspect that the seemingly selfless cyberagitation is in fact a paid-for NGO activity.

As established in previous studies,[7] money appears to be the main generator of distrust in the net today. The position of Mikhail, who is 23 years old, i.e. he can afford to have a more idealistic point of view towards the material world, is rather symptomatic:

„Any sort of professionalization of civil society would lead to distortions… Let it be a kind of hobby, yes, an act of amateurism, but what would we prefer: dependent professionals or free amateurs? Would I make a professional father if my wife paid me for this? Would she make a professional wife if I paid her?"

But 50-plusyear-olds share a similar line of thought. There is Plamen, who, though unemployed, dedicates hours and hours to unpaid FB activity:

„There are loads of paid activists in the net. That is how I classify them: paid and unpaid.”

In fact, the main task of the cyberactivist is to prove selflessness and demarcate him/herself from the “project culture”. We should recall here the development of the civil sector in Bulgaria after 1989. The first phase was marked by the spread throughout Eastern Europe of Western-sponsored organizations, whose staff was paid two- or three times more than the state employees to promote political pluralism, ethnic tolerance, neoliberal economy, etc. Funds like “Open Society” provoked a lot of hatred, envy and bitterness among those who were not among the happy elected. Then, at around the turn of the century, we saw the emergence of fluid and floating “grass-root” groups which dealt not only with such heart-warming activities as mutual aid and mountain garbage collection, but also with activities that shocked the political mainstream in Bulgaria with their nationalism, racism and transgressiveness. The third phase started around 2004-2005: it was marked by the migration of the civil sector to the net. In a way, the digital engines reintroduced a kind of structure and protocol to the field: you join groups, you click on “likes”, you sign petitions, you subscribe to feeds. Technology and the business behind it, however, pursue their own interest which consists in generating traffic, no matter how, who, or why. As a result, the sense of structure becomes very elusive: you visit a website when you can; you log out when you are bored.

The new virtual state of being of the civil sector seems to intensify the ambiguities that surround it. Activists are supposed to express public interest, but their organizations are private and have no democratic representativeness. They are supposed to suggest policies, but the projects behind these policies have to be presented as non-political. Working locally, they are funded and branded by foreign-based institutions... These tensions are temporarily solved by personalizing and emotionalizing internet activism. Instead of struggling to legitimize their organization as democratically representative and legitimate, as they did in the 1990s, the new NGO activists concentrate on genuinely being "themselves": they are outraged, passionate, intrigued, thrilled, and so on, mentioning here and there their project assignment. As I said, digital politicians, salespeople, and journalists do the same. They, however, are much more meticulous about hiding their activity (especially those who use their accounts to advertise commercial goods). The reason is that the civil sector isn't and cannot be entirely professionalized: people become activists in the “break” between jobs – people become digital activists in the break between breaks.

 Boyko Meteo

Fig. 2. The image on the weather forecast map is the face of prime minister Borissov. FB collage by G. Dinev.

How does a cyberactivist evoke a sense of spontaneity and authenticity?

Many authors (e.g., Turkle, 2011: Part two) consider FB hyperactivity a sort of mechanism compensating for the difficulties in offline communication; it is said to be a sign of introversion and even depressive tendencies. Most of my interviewees mentioned separation as being at the root of their FB commitment: moving to another city or moving abroad triggers the symptom.

As a matter of fact, the boom of letter-writing in the 17th and 18th centuries after the introduction of postal services is to a great extent similar to the contemporary situation; between 1670 and 1696, the famous Madame De Sevigne wrote 1120 letters to her daughter, married in Bretagne, to keep her up to date with social life in Paris. The introduction of postcards at the end of the 19th century led to a similar communication explosion. Today, the reason is the digital revolution. How to remind someone of ourselves and stay in touch? There is some piece of information, but there is also our emotion, provoked by it. The late 19th century postcards of the type “Gruss aus" would show our friend the stunning view we had admired, while the hand-written note would say: “We had beer here”. A typical FB status will have a photo uploaded by someone else, plus a touch of personal emotion, made unambiguous by an emoticon.

We should go beyond psychology which would explain this with narcissism, self-staging, or shyness. What matters is a new type of digital semiotics that consists of emotion, personal relation and individualization. Soul-searching or sharing of intimate facts - typical of bloggers in the previous digital era – is not what I have in mind. The most important aspect of FB credibility is speed: posts should spontaneously react to what’s happening, for the more delayed they are, the higher the suspicions of inauthenticity. In fact, it was the SMS, followed by the Tweet, which set this tendency. You comment first, you think next. The emergence of such hybrid forms of technology as smartphones and tablets blurred the existing differences between computers and mobile phones. Today, you log into FB, wherever you are, you upload a photo on Twitter, you talk, take photos, add geotags, sounds, maps, and so on. The result of this genre mix is the ultimate victory of speed that is impulsivity, spontaneity.

Take, for instance, the shocking, and as it turned out later, fake assassination attempt on Ahmed Dogan, leader of the Party of Rights and Liberties, at their conference on January 19th, 2013. It was followed by an avalanche of posts, most users suspecting various kinds of behind-the-scenes plots. The collage author Dinev reacted with images of Dogan receiving an Oscar (= the whole incident was a great piece of acting).

One can achieve emotional spontaneity by stylistic means too: numerous emoticons, unconventional punctuality (five exclamation marks+ three question marks+ dots), ellipsis and misprints, or simply by expressive, aggressive language ("Pumpkinhead" for the PM, "Fatneck" for the new general prosecutor...). The style of the new digital intimacy involves pathos: a music video that has impressed the user, a photo of his child. This type of conduct is avoided by cyberagitators, my interviewees even ridiculed it; nevertheless, in the flow of citizens' opinions and positions, there is always a chance for an endearing sick cat to pop up.

Though claiming to show spontaneity, such personal likings are not exactly spontaneous. The FB user selects his/her emotional reactions carefully in order to represent his/her lifestyle to the audience. The users with higher education I followed would post a rock-band video, but they would never, unless it is a joke, post a chalga song.[8] We can say that the transformation of individual taste into a message seems to be a direct result of the generalized surveillance on the net. I am even tempted to draw a parallel with another panoptical society, the communist one. Back then ideology invested great efforts to supervise the consumer behaviour of the citizens. What was the result? The seemingly banal act of wearing jeans, listening to the Rolling Stones, or driving a Western car acquired an additional political connotation. Not surprisingly, writer Vasily Aksyonov stated that the first dissidents in the USSR were those dressed in the fashion.[9] The digital panopticon seems to function in the same mode: the slightest consumerist impulse becomes a message.

As any other public mask, spontaneity is a construct, a matter of self-control. Most of the interviewees described the various choices they had to make in order to create their own style. FB users with ambitions in journalism, politics or the NGO sector, consider carefully their FB behaviour: it is certain that an eco-activist would never like a post about shale gas, a right-wing supporter would denounce left-wing ideas, etc. But this goes beyond ideology and affects TV shows, art, music. “I started a job and began to think about my image” says Bobby, referring to the moment he gave himself over to FB. Here are three examples of a reflexive attitude to one’s personal style, typical of the net – a user in his late 30s, and two from the 20+ age group:

"On the whole, I consider carefully the style of my posts. E.g. sometimes I keep silent about a certain topic I would normally discuss, if I risk offending some of my “friends”. Sometimes I am provocative, though. So provocative that it ends up with heated quarrels. Besides, often enough there are people who simply don’t get it (because they don’t have – at least not my type of – sense of humour, or because they don’t speak proper Bulgarian). A ridiculous, music video (chalga, for instance). That’s why in the course of time I limited posts of that type. So, in this case, yes, I am concerned about my "reputation"." (Momchil)
“Our movement chose good manners as its style. Even when we organize protests we try to keep our command of language, avoid punctuation mistakes, design professionally our collages.” (Krum)
“Two or three months ago there was a period of time, when nobody liked the links I posted, and I felt worried and unpopular. I was aware this feeling was ridiculous, still I was frustrated that nobody liked my posts. I was even thinking of deleting one of the ignored links, but then decided that this would be evading responsibility, so I left it there. Briefly, for a few days I was really anxious. I even considered deleting my FB account, but then I thought this would be the type of behaviour typical of a loser. Finally, I posted something that several people liked, the next post was even more popular, so I was back in the game. But I’m still very careful before posting something, I check which of my friends are online and try to guess who would like a certain message. So, my FB posts involve a kind of logistics. Rarely I post something spontaneously or accidentally, the way it’s supposed to be.” (Kamelya)

Boyko Stalin

Fig. 3. "Thank you for the highways, for the happy childhood": PM Borissov on a Stalinist poster, G. Dinev.

The most important feature of the cyberagitators’ style is defiance of power, official media and public life in general. I will describe this attitude through the oxymoron "aristocratic anarchism". “The net unravels the hidden plot”; it “decodes and demystifies”; “it ignores all institutions”, said Tsveti. Negative opinions seem more authentic than positive ones, which sound suspiciously commercial; parody is more genuine than serious messages, which we suspect to be ideological.

We have here the key to the alternativity of Bulgarian FB. According to two French FB users this platform is considered much more mainstream in that country: the really radical civic voices are concentrated around web-media like rue89, NuméroZéro, or at least Mediapart. Maya defined the Bulgarian situation in the following way: it is difficult to gather a critical mass of users who would adhere to their left-wing or other type of alternative ideas. Therefore people would rather use the widely accessible FB, where your posts can be seen also by people with different, even conflicting beliefs. As a result, people constantly rearrange their contacts in order to avoid some or attract others, the reasons being not only political, but also cultural:

„I would unfriend some of my contacts if a post irritated me. I unfriended some teenagers around the Katunitsa incident: their anti-gypsy posts infuriated me. Also there was a guy that made a lot of spelling mistakes and one that posted loads of Playboy-like photos. I unfriended someone from the extreme-right Ataka party, since I decided he was damaging my FB reputation. People can access my account via his one.” (Maya) 

Of course, FB provides the opportunity for filtering and grouping your contacts. The efforts that such activities require, however, discourage most users, at least the ones I follow. After all, the main advantage of the platform is its effortless ease of use.

As a result, the user is often torn between his various reference groups: those of occupation/education, schoolmates, left-wing or right-wing acquaintances, fun loving or information seeking ones, Bulgarian speakers and foreign friends. At the end of the day, however, FB activity comes down to the most common denominator: “I try not to offend anybody”, “I refrain from jokes that not everybody will understand”. Seemingly, the cult of experience, emotion and personality comes in handy here again: it bridges contradicting milieus. This is me, states the FB power-user, if you like me, you’ll read my posts too.

Chalga commission

Fig. 4. Barroso with chalga singers, collage by G. Dinev. The scandal was linked to the attempt of the biggest pop-folk studio to get European funding.

How to interpret this return of the personal, triggered by the ascent of the digital?

It already happened during sentimentalism (18th century), romanticism (the beginning of the 19th century), expressionism (the beginning of the 20th century), and feminism (1960s). Each of these periods was marked by disruption of social hierarchies, and delegitimation of traditional power, procedures and values.

Putting forward his/her own feelings and friends, presenting him/herself as a passionate, yet selfless amateur, the cyberactivist tries to occupy the place emptied by the delegitimized elites of contemporary society. Power struggle (to draw on Nietzsche[10]) is no longer a battle for legitimacy, but a conflict of interpretations: is s/he really authentic or does s/he only play a game? Is s/he selfless or does someone pay him/her for pretending to be selfless? In the past, art was about reflecting reality. Ironically, today, it is the digital world that aspires to authenticity by imitating art: it imitates plots, passions, characters, intimacies.

Mr Bean

Fig. 5. Mr. Bean, posing as the Bulgarian president, collage: G. Dinev.

 

References

Ditchev, Ivaylo, Orlin Spasov. 2009. Novite mladi, novite medii [The New Young, the New Media]. Sofia: Open Society.

Ditchev, Ivaylo, Orlin Spasov. 2011. Novi medii, novi mobilizatsii [New Media, New Mobilizations]. Sofia: Open Society.

Hampton, Keith, Lauren Sessions Goulet, Lee Rainie, Kristen Purcell. 2011. Social networking sites and our lives, Pew Internet [accessed 25.01.2016].

Hampton, Keith, Lauren Sessions Goulet, Lee Rainie, Kristen Purcell. 2012. Why most Facebook users get more than they give. Pew Internet.

Hanisch. Carol. 1969. The personal is political [accessed 25.01.2016].

Jenkins, Henry. 2007. Convergence culture: where old and new media collide, New York: NYU Press.

Keen, Andrew. 2007. The Cult of the Amateur, London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Lovink, Geert. 2007. “Blogging, the nihilist impulse”. Eurozine [accessed 25.01.2016].

Lovink, Geert. 2010. “MyBrain.net. The colonization of real time and other trends in Web 2.0”. Eurozine [accessed 25.01.2016].

Turkle Sherry. 2011. Alone together. Why we Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, New York: Basicbooks.

 


[1] For the sake of comparison I also carried out a few interviews with FB power users from Europe and Russia.

[2] The criteria for a power user in the above-mentioned survey are: changing FB status, adding friends, clicking ‘like’, commenting on other posts, sending personal messages. The problem is that there is an overlapping of the various criteria; FB activity can hardly be reduced to a specific quantifiable result.

[3] Persona = mask, Latin.

[4] Lovink defines blogging as reproducing existing information in a public act of internalization (Lovink, 2007).

[5] The respondents’ names are changed.

[6] Reflecting on Web 2.0 culture, Lovink writes: "The ideal is to become neither the Other nor the better human. Mehrmensch, not Übermensch." (Lovink, 2010).

[7] See: Ditchev and Spassov, 2009 and 2011.

[8] Vulgar Balkan pop-folk music.

[9] “Tennis skirts in the era of dry socialism”, Moscow news, 26/01/2009.

[10] “There are no facts, only interpretations.” In: Der Wille zur Macht, II, 123. 

  

About the author

Ivaylo Ditchev is a professor of Cultural Anthropology at Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski. His current research focusses on cities, political culture, and practices of citizenship. His latest books are: "Zhelanieto da tragnesh, pravoto da spresh [The Desire to Leave, the Right to Stop]" (Seminar_BG 2013), "Grazhdani odvad mestata? Novi mobilnosti, novi granitsi, novi formi na obitavane [Citizens beyond Places? New Mobilities, New Borders, New Forms of Belonging]" (Sofia: Prosveta 2009) and “Prostranstvo na zhelaniyata, zhelanie za prostranstvo [Desire of Spaces, Spaces of Desire: Studies in Urban Anthropology]” (Sofia: LIK 2005). 

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