In This Issue
March 9, 2011
March 10, 2011
Zizi Papacharissi, professor and head of the Department of Communications, has been busy. In two new books, both released this past fall, she has been keeping track of your participation online, what it’s doing to democracy, and the privacy that you now do—or don’t—keep.
In her new book A Private Sphere: Democracy in a Digital Age(Polity, 2010), Papacharissi says that all the time people are spending on Twitter, Facebook and other social websites nowadays may be giving democracy a much-needed shot in the arm.
While political activity may be on the decline and many Americans are showing it by not voting, they may also be “intrigued by new habits,” says Papacharissi.
Users of social websites and news aggregate sites, like Digg, are finding a more meaningful political experience than they have had in the past. “People look at stories that are circulating, from both mainstream and independent or alternative media, in ways that are potentially empowering,” she said. “The user gets to decide what makes news. It reverses the power balance.”
“’Change life!’ ‘Change society!’ These precepts mean nothing without the production of an appropriate space . . . new social relationships call for a new space, and vice versa.” Lefebvre (1974/1991, p. 59)
On the evening of November 4, 2008. . . thousands of Chicago residents enthusiastically made their way to Grant Park, where the soon-to-be next President of the United States, Barack Obama, would be hosting an election night party. While the entire park area was available to Obama supporters to celebrate, and crowd projections neared a million, a smaller area had been sectioned off for the media and a few thousand attendees... Tickets had been made available just a few days earlier, via a complex network of contacts assembled through Obama’s Illinois supporters—people who had made donations, worked in phone banks, traveled to battleground states to campaign for Obama, or signed up to receive e- mail updates from the campaign. The Obama campaign had gained a level of media savvy notoriety by using cell phone data to send context-specific text messages, Facebook applications, and a variety of new media tools in innovative ways during the campaign. . .
Event attendees discontent with the level of information provided by [giant screens broadcasting] CNN quickly pulled out their mobile devices, mostly iPhones or Blackberries, and googled results and projections as reported by other mainstream media and alternative news sources. Those seeking even higher levels of involvement were actively updating their status on Facebook and tweeting their latest impressions of the event they were attending. Several, if not the majority, of the attendees spent a great deal of time on their cell phones, communicating with others. A popular conversation topic, and close second to election results, was wifi access and cell phone signal availability, or lack thereof. One might expect that media access, essential to experience the event live, from home, would become irrelevant to those select few attending the coveted event live. On the contrary, for those at the event, the absence of convenient domestic access to media was felt, and addressed, through the use of mobile devices. . .
As the President emerged on the stage, cheers, cries of joy, and music all blended together in jubilant noise; people clapped; and most raised not flags or other emblems of fraternity but their cell phones and cameras, in salute, to the new President-elect. As they took photographs, captured video, or just left the line open for loved ones on the other end listening in, the new President began to address a crowd of digitally enabled and digitally extended citizens.
There is this mystical connection between technology and Contemporary Democracies, Civic Engagement, and Media democracy. Not all technologies are democratizing or democracy related. Most technology has little to do with the condition of democracy. Yet, technologies that afford expressive capabilities, like the radio, television, the Internet, and related media, tend to trigger narratives of emancipation, autonomy, and freedom in the public imagination. . .
From "Contemporary Democracies, Civic Engagement, and the Media” in A Private Sphere: Democracy in a Digital Age by Zizi Papacharissi. Copyright © 2010 by Zizi A. Papacharissi.
Citizens ordinarily are restricted to the receiving end of messages from politicians and the media, but “social media flip this relationship around,” says Papacharissi. “We’re not just passive consumers. Users can blog, post an update on Twitter, post status updates on causes they’re interested in through Facebook. The average citizen has a way of affecting the mainstream news agenda.”
And how do these changes impact democracy?
“I would hope in an invigorating way,” she said. “The optimistic read is that these technologies revive interest in a system that is centuries old.”
You might wonder how all of this connects with the recent revolution in Egypt, a revolution that many in the media describe as a revolution by social media like Facebook and Twitter? Papacharissi offers a more nuanced interpretation of events. She suggests that, “Egyptians used social media to come out of their private spheres and join in a public request for ex-President Mubarak to resign. What motivated Egyptians was injustice, not social media. So the social media did not make this revolution happen—but they helped communicate it to other Egyptians and the rest of the world with greater speed, immediacy, and drama.”
But how does this social networking affect our privacy?
“It’s very much a trade-off,” Papacharissi said. “We post private information in exchange for social services.”
Andy Warhol once said eventually everyone in America will be famous for 15 minutes. Yet, as Papacharissi observes in her blog, “Almost half a century later, being public online has become so easy that one wonders how, in the future, one may be truly private for 15 minutes.”
She goes on to say, “Sociality has always required the [voluntary] abandonment of privacy.... What is new is that our social actions are digitally recorded, archived and tracked.” She noted that recently the Wall Street Journal ran an expose of Facebook, revealing that many of its applications share information with third parties, including marketing firms, and that identity theft is one of the more disturbing potential outcomes.
From such transactions as buying an item online, “someone can put together your digital ID for a variety of purposes—including getting access to your social security number,” Papacharissi said.
Many of these issues are explored in another new book, A Networked Self: Identity, Community and Culture on Social Network Sites, which Papacharissi edited. According to the book, the digital era enables publicly-oriented activities—such as posting a blog, sharing a political opinion, voting on or signing a petition to support a cause or uploading exclusive news content on YouTube—to emanate from the same personal space.
"In contemporary democracies, it is frequently necessary for the individual to return to the private realm in order to practice these newer civic habits with greater autonomy, flexibility and potential for expression," she said.