Social Media and The Demotic Imaginary

One of the most prominent tropes of social media is the crowd. As the cyber-utopian Clay Shirky put it: here comes everybody. This endlessly repeated motif sees social media in terms of the people. Where once there were a few commentators who dominated the airwaves, now everybody has their say online. Where once there were a few musical superstars, now we have a ‘long tail’ of productive musicians. Where once a few critics exploited their position, now everybody has their voice heard through online review sites. In any given sector, we can see the same motif repeated, with digital platforms seen to have replaced the few with the many in a way implicitly assumed to be democratic. In many cases, we can be reasonably certain that these claims are empirically false e.g. musical superstars dominate more than ever in a global culture mediated by algorithmic discovery.

But there’s more to their plausibility than the mistaken belief they are true. They embody what I think of as the demotic imaginary: the conviction that introducing more people into a sphere, in a loud and noisy way, represents a democratic game. There can be a kernel of truth to these claims, supplemented by the affective force of the demotic imaginary to help the complexity fade away. Thus the ambiguities which qualify our judgements retreat into the background, as we are taken in by superficial realities. For instance, as Leigh Gallagher describes on loc 2004 of The Airbnb Story: 

When the attorney general’s report came out, it said that 72 percent of Airbnb’s “private” listings in New York were in violation of state law. And it said that while 94 percent of hosts had just 1 or 2 listings, the other 6 percent were so-called commercial hosts —those who had 3 or more listings regularly through Airbnb —and they accounted for more than a third of bookings and revenue. It said that one hundred hosts had 10 or more listings. The top dozen hosts had anywhere from 9 to 272 listings and made more than $ 1 million per year each. The biggest user, at 272 listings, had revenue of $ 6.8 million. 2 It wasn’t so much the illegal activity that was new —after all, given the 2010 law, any Airbnb listing for a full apartment was illegal (unless it was in a house with fewer than three units), and both then and now, thousands of hosts and guests either don’t know about the law or willfully ignore it. What was new was that this report —marking the first time a party outside Airbnb had any access to the company’s data —revealed the scope of the multiproperty activity on the site. It dovetailed with previous reports that suggested a small percentage of hosts was responsible for a disproportionate share of the company’s New York business. Airbnb called the data incomplete and outdated. It said that New York’s current rules lacked clarity, and it wanted to work together with the city on creating new regulations to stop bad actors while putting in place “clear, fair rules for home sharing.”

It is undeniable that Airbnb has introduced more providers into the rental sector. But the demotic imaginary leads us to conceive of this influx as intrinsically democratic, as a disaggregated mass of equally situated actors. The reality is rather more complex.

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