For this week’s study task I have been asked to respond to the idea that ‘screen cultures’ as an area of study can be understood through a recognition that contemporary media technologies (and the lifestyles, behaviours, communication networks and creative processes that they encourage) are bringing about a blurring or erosion of established boundaries.

 

Well…

 

That certainly required a lot of thought to process. One thing that I acknowledged was that this is an extremely open question; one that obviously as it says concerns the whole of my practise and so I have decided that in order to establish a developed response I need to approach this task with a particular angle, given the time I have. As a way of doing this I considered what I have previously looked at at undergraduate level and I felt that one particular (amongst many others) medium that was very influential in this regard was social media. My argument will be explained through this post but I believe that both the concept and the practise of this platform are instrumental in blurring particular boundaries.

“Human character is the essential component of our sociable and generous behaviours, even when coordinated with high-tech tools. Interpretations of those behaviours that focus in the technology miss the point: technology enables those behaviours, but it doesn’t cause them.” (Shirky 2010: 98).

This quote from Clay Shirky, a writer of the social and economic effects of the internet says a lot about the notion that social media is influential in blurring boundaries. What Shirky acknowledges is that essentially it is the behaviour of users who define the events that happen and not the medium itself, which merely provides a platform to facilitate collective action and this is essential to consider.

Established boundaries of course represent a lot of different ideas but take for example the events of the 2010 Arab Spring and the 2011 London Riots. These examples are not considering the positive or negative impacts or intentions but rather the repercussions of collective action. Each of these viral online campaigns experienced exponential growth via social media and it is this factor which determined the impact that each one had on its individual area of concern. Each one in its own rights is an example of how a small group of individuals have used social media to promote their intentions in order to see it reach its ambitions and in each case the campaign has erased particular established boundaries; but what they share in common is that they have reconstructed the balance and hierarchy of power. It is important to recognise Shirky’s comment above when discussing these events as I would argue that social media as a medium receives much criticism for its profane activity, when in actual fact it is just a digital representation of human behaviour. Sara Reardon questions this notion of social media’s power in relation to the ‘Arab Spring’ when she argues that the platform told people what to do and where to go, claiming, “the reason was social influence, not social networking”. (Reardon 2012).

On December 17th December, a local marketeer set himself on fire outside of the town hall in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia in protest of the corrupt dictatorship that ruled his town after the abuse he suffered for not bribing higher officials. In the past events like this could have been censored by mainstream media – but now platforms of new media shift the focus; and the internet shifts the balance of power.

What followed were a series of uprising protests known as ‘The Arab Spring’ where citizens of the neighbouring countries of Tunisia in Northern Africa and the Middle East used social media, particularly ‘Twitter’ to organise protests and raise awareness in their attempt to fight back and overthrow the dictating leaders of their countries. What was so instrumental was that these individuals were using technology as a weapon of self-defence. This is important to recognise as it illustrates how people are using social media to gain support and distribute their messages.

Figure 1. A strong depiction of protestors during the Arab Spring illustrating their stance on social media's importance.

Figure 1. A strong depiction of protestors during the Arab Spring illustrating their stance on social media’s importance.

Evan Bailyn, an internet entrepreneur argues that this is down to the infrastructure of Social Networking sites and the empowerment that they promote. He argues that we should advocate technological advancements to progress activism and believes that, should it become more accessible at all levels, its benefits could be monumental. Bailyn claims, “It’s time to stop viewing social media as an easy way out, and see it for what it is: a new tool for improving the world through emotional and social awareness” (Bailyn, 2012). It is interesting that he takes a positive approach and by all means what he is saying is true, and arguably already happening however without being too cynical, he ignores the fact not just in this quote, but in the whole article that it can also facilitate very negative practice, for example the ‘2011 England riots’ which were fuelled by social media.

The ‘2011 London riots’ that were fuelled by social media, in particular ‘Blackberry Messenger’ and were inspired by individuals online acquaintances and their respective social circles. This as an example would again show just how prolific these tools can be, despite being used in a negative way. However, it is essential to recognise that something which facilities so much democracy will always have positive and negative implications. The riots illustrate how social media has been used as a platform to erase the boundaries between the power of authority, where those involved were able to commit audacious crimes in view of live T.V, bystanders and even the authorities because of the sheer magnitude of these events that had been structured using social media.

 

Figure 2. The amount of daily visitors to twitter during 2011 which depicts a dramatic increase at the time of the London riots.

Figure 2. The amount of daily visitors to twitter during 2011 which depicts a dramatic increase at the time of the London riots.

 

Figure 1 depicts the increase of visitors to ‘twitter’ in the UK and represents an increase during the ‘2011 London riots.’ This highlights the concept that it is very easy for users to participate within these activities. Furthermore, these individuals invest time in their online activity and because of how accessible technology has become, users of social media are always connected and can instantaneously immerse themselves within their social circles. It is not only redeeming for young audiences to spend time online, but it is almost becoming a necessity.

Paola Turbaro argues that “it is the relationships with your recipients that shape your movements” (Turbaro 2012). Turbaro believes that technology and social media facilitated collective action on an unprecedented scale, allowing many people to disperse rapidly, way beyond the reach of older media platforms (Turbaro 2012). She claims that it is not social media which provoked these incidents; it simply provided a platform to make them happen. Cara Pring also supports this notion and argues that, “people are more invested and influenced by what their friends are sharing than what some faceless journalist deems important.” (Pring, C 2012).

The Essay: Paola Tubaro, who has made a study of the role of digital communication in the 2011 riots in England, examines the ‘dark side’ of social media.

However it is vital to recognise that social media only told people where to go and what to do, in no way did it force their actions. However an important question is, would these events have been so prolific without social media? Whatever your opinion it can strongly be argued that it would have reached nowhere near to the magnitude that this technology enables. As already mentioned, Shirky argues that people who focus on the behaviour on social media miss the point; social media does not cause these actions, it merely enables them (Shirky 2010: 98). Shirky is able to appreciate the democratic values that this platform provides, and this idea is pivotal in understanding social media’s role in the erosion of boundaries.

As I mentioned above, this post was not to assert any argument as to the negative or positive attributes that social media encompasses but rather to argue how it blurs social boundaries. I have chosen to use examples which are opposite in regards to their intentions and both illustrate how the tools social media provide can be facilitated in such a way that can lead to radical change.

 

References

Bailyn, E. (2012) ‘The Difference Between Slacktivism And Activism: How ‘Kony 2012’ Is Narrowing The Gap’, Huffington post. Blog [online] 19 March 2012. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/evan-bailyn/kony-2012-activism_b_1361791.html [Accessed on 13/10/14]

BBC2. (2011) How Facebook Changed the World: The Arab Spring. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VCdIOch2970 [Accessed on 13/10/14]

Parr, B. (2011) London Riots: Twitter Traffic Surges in the UK [STATS]. Blog [online] 9 August 2011. Available at: http://mashable.com/2011/08/09/london-riots-twitter/ [Accessed on 13/10/14]

Pring, C. (2012) ‘Kony 2012: proof of the positive power of social media, or its danger?’. Available at: http://thesocialskinny.com/kony-2012-proof-of-the-positive-power-of-social-media-or-its-danger/ [Accessed on 13/10/14]

Shirky, C. (2010) Cognitive surplus. London: Penguin Books.

Reardon, S. (2012) Was the Arab Spring really a Facebook revolution. Available at: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21428596.400-was-the-arab-spring-really-a-facebook-revolution.html [Accessed on 13/10/14]

Turbaro, P. (2012) ‘The Essay’. Podcast [Online]. bob. Available at: https://bobnational.net/wayf.php [Accessed on 13/10/14]

Turkle, S. (2011) Alone Together. New York: Basic Books.

 Figure 1. Revolution Tools. Available at: http://hts2041.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/social-media-revolution-tools.png%3Fw3D500 [Accessed on 13/10/14]

 Figure 2. Daily Twitter visitors. Available at: Parr, B. (2011) London Riots: Twitter Traffic Surges in the UK [STATS]. Blog [online] 9 August 2011. Available at: http://mashable.com/2011/08/09/london-riots-twitter/ [Accessed on 13/10/14]

 

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