Communicative Capitalism, Status Update Psychology, and Filter Bubbles

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. Continue reading

Activists in Google’s N-gram viewer

I learned about Google’s N-gram viewer from reading Eli Pariser’s book The Filter Bubble. The tool queries a “database spanning the entire contents of over five hundred years’ worth of books — 5.2 million books in total… [Pariser].” So you can see how often different phrases have been used in print, over many years.

I was just wondering whether an N-gram viewer search might seem to support my claim in What’s wrong with activism? — that activism as we conceive of it is a pretty new thing. What’s wrong with activism, I argue, is how it has become such a thing unto itself — such a specialized identity — that “non-activists” can easily be inoculated against; how it extricates active politics from the fabric of everyday life.

Here’s what comes up searching the word “activist” 1912-2012 in N-gram viewer:

Usage of the term takes a dramatic upturn in the 1960s and continues to climb steadily up until the turn of the millenium. It’s declined a little since then. Does this mean anything? All sorts of phrases come and go all the time, but that this coincides with the cultural trends of specialization and self-selection in U.S. society (discussed by folks like Ronald Inglehart, Bill Bishop, Robert Putnam, etc.) is interesting.