Who do we imagine ourselves to be tweeting on behalf of? Norm circles, networked harassment and the politics of social media

I’m interested in the role which imagined agreement has in motivating online action. For example in what Alice Marwick calls networked harassment there’s a loose coordination between individual users, fuelled by high-visibility amplifier accounts and motivated by a sense that a norm has been violated. Dave Elder-Vass argues that behaviour taken to enforce a norm is accompanied by beliefs about the extent to which that norm is endorsed by others. In calling someone out, critiquing their actions or otherwise acting in a way which seeks to enforce a norm we imagine others agree with us. After all if it was only us who believed that something wrong had taken place then what status would our norm enforcement have? We form believes about the extent of agreement with the norm based on those who are nearest to us (what he terms the proximal norm circle) but we image it extends beyond them (what he terms the imagined norm circle). As he notes, “What is imagined is not the existence of the community, but its extent: its size and its boundaries.” Imagined norm circles in this sense can play an important role in political life, through ideas such as the ‘silent majority’ or, as Steve Watson pointed out yesterday, the current trope of ‘just saying what everyone is thinking’.

I’m interested in how social media influences this relationship between the proximal and the imagined. Our experience of social platforms provides us with proximal actors whose proximity is shaped by socio-technical factors i.e. the algorithmic sorting of content in pursuit of increased user engagement, amplifying the existing homophilic tendencies of the social graph. The politics of social media mean these (apparent) commonalities are then leveraged in coordinated behaviour online through the aforementioned tropes and manifesting in phenomena like networked harassment mean that they have implicated for the imagined norm circles. Does social media tend to close the gap between what Elder-Vass calls the proximal and imagined norm circles? It’s an empirical question but one which I’m hoping Steve, Naomi Barnes and I can address in our upcoming project on teacher’s use of social media. Who do teachers see themselves as agreeing with? How has social media influenced the dynamics of that agreement? How does this sense of the proximal and imagined community they agree with shape their behaviour online?

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