These notes are for the fifth and final week of the CPGJ platform capitalism intensive reading group. One of the themes running through the readings over the five weeks has been the political valence of platforms and its relationship to our analysis of them. My own instinct is that valorising platforms in an a priori way impedes our analysis of them but that an a political framing of platform capitalism is neither possible nor desirable. Rather than being an outright contradiction, I believe this leaves a small space for analysis which I hoped the readings for this week would help open up. The essay by Helen Margetts takes issue with the gloomy interpretations of recent developments with social media, contrasting to the now antiquated sense of excitement with which they were once greeted. As she put it in a lecture in Cambridge I helped organise in November, “social media have had a bad press recently”:

They are held responsible for pollution of the democratic environment through fake news, junk science, computational propaganda and aggressive micro-targeting. In turn, these phenomena have been blamed for the rise of populism, political polarization, far-right extremism and radicalisation, waves of hate against women and minorities, post-truth, the end of representative democracy, fake democracy and ultimately, the death of democracy. It feels like the tirade of relatives of the deceased at the trial of the murderer. It is extraordinary how much of this litany is taken almost as given, the most gloomy prognoses as certain visions of the future.

Her point is not to reassert tech-utopianism but simply to stress that “we know rather little about the relationship between social media and democracy”. After ten years in which the internet has challenged our previous assumptions about democracy, it is imperative that we do not rush to judgement in lieu of understanding how social media have “injected volatility and instability into political systems, bringing a continual cast of unpredictable events”. There is barely a feature of political life that has been untouched by these changes, posing profound questions for our conceptual, empirical and normative understanding of democracy. But as much as these platforms generate transactional data which could in principle help us to understand these changes, in reality “Most of this data is proprietary and inaccessible to researchers –  the revolution in big data and data science has passed by democracy research”.

Her essay responds to this epistemic void by laying out a concise thought systematic account of what we _do_ know about social media and its relationship to politics. The positive part of this account rests on the value of what she terms “tiny acts” such as “Following, liking, tweeting, retweeting, sharing text or images relating to a political issue or signing up to a digital campaign” which have no equivalent prior to social media and extend “below the bottom rung of the ladder of participation, which stretches from small acts such as signing a petition, through voting, to attending a political meeting, and donating money to a political cause, right up to political violence or armed struggle”. These tiny acts bring new people into politics but the same characteristics which enable political activity to take place outside of organised groups render the ensuing actions unstable and unpredictable. The resulting pattern is akin to that of earthquakes, argues Margetts, with many trivial eruptions and a few enormous ones. These patterns of engagement challenge two democratic features (political identity and institutions) and render politics more unpredictable than ever before. Drawing an analogy with the stages of grief, Margetts identifies Denial, Bargaining, Anger, Depression and Resistance as stages of response to the profound change which has been brought about in democratic politics. This includes the interesting contradiction that ‘clicktavism’ is disdained while social media is also claimed to have massive pathological effects upon organised politics. Which is it? The final stage of acceptance entails the recognition that social media are here to stay and the ensuing difficult work of institutionalising them:

There is an alternative response to the role of social media in politics – to accept that they are part of our democratic system, the political weather, and that political systems must accommodate the change, through a process of institutional catch up. Most social media platforms did not exist 10 years ago, and they have been at the heart of our political systems for far less than that. So it is understandable that political institutions have failed to adjust, and the new institutions of democracy – social media corporations – have proceeded unchecked and unregulated, particularly given the power of the original cyber-utopian dream.


We have been using the terminology of ‘platforms’ through this reading group but have we paid enough attention to the implications of this? A number of the readings we have used make a strong case about the analytical value of the term, identifying it as a mode of organisation with ramifications for capitalism as a whole. But what should we make of the readiness with which companies adopt the terminology to describe their own services. Should this make us suspicious? This is the argument Tarleton Gillespie makes in the politics of platforms. This is a term which, as Gillespie puts it, is “increasingly familiar term in the description of the online services of content intermediaries, both in their self- characterizations and in the broader public discourse of users, the press, and commentators”. Understood as a discursive strategy, it is a crucial part of how these firms “establish a long-term position in a fluctuating economic and cultural terrain”. Gillespie insists we must unpack these strategic considerations, in order to analyse how firms seek “to position themselves both to pursue current and future profits, to strike a regulatory sweet spot between legislative protections that benefit them and obligations that do not, and to lay out a cultural imaginary within which their service makes sense”. To put it crudely: it is part of the self-branding of platforms and this should surely give us pause for thought. Nonetheless, analysing this self-positioning can help us make sense of the how these firms understanding themselves, what they see as their interests and how they intend to develop their businesses over the coming years.

Platform is a structural metaphor akin to ‘network,’ ‘broadcast,’ or ‘channel’ which “depends on a semantic richness that, though it may go unnoticed by the casual listener or even the speaker, gives the term discursive resonance”. Gillespie identifies four senses in which the term platform is used, expressed through fifteen entries in the dictionary: computational (providing an infrastructure), architectural (surfaces upon which people can stand), figurative (a foundation upon which we can build) and political (a body of commitments upon which a party and/or individual seeks election). These sense intermingle, such that “being raised, level, and accessible are ideological features as much as physical ones” conveying certain qualities in the system or entity which is designated as a platform. The computational meaning of platform precedes the current preoccupation with social media. This tracks a shift in the meaning, such that the quality of being a platform is identified “not necessarily because they allow code to be written or run, but because they afford an opportunity to communicate, interact, or sell”. Reflecting on the case of YouTube, Gillespie explains how the increasingly dominant sense of platform uses the discursive force of the trope to politicisation the facilitation of user generated content:

This more conceptual use of ‘platform’ leans on all of the term’s connotations: computational, something to build upon and innovate from; political, a place from which to speak and be heard; figurative, in that the opportunity is an abstract promise as much as a practical one; and architectural, in that YouTube is designed as an open-armed, egalitarian facilitation of expression, not an elitist gatekeeper with normative and technical restrictions. This fits neatly with the long-standing rhetoric about the democratizing potential of the Internet, and with the more recent enthusiasm for user-generated content (UGC), amateur expertise, popular creativity, peer-level social networking, and robust online commentary.

This positions YouTube as “unlike the mainstream broadcasters, film studios, and publishers” and rejecting the “role of gatekeeper, not even curators: they would be mere facilitators, supporters, hosts”. In spite of the prominence of their advertising model, much of the user-generated content cannot be paired with ads because concern of being paired with the wrong content is so widespread while YouTube itself is concerned about accidentally profiting from copyright infringement. YouTube have therefore sought commercial partnerships from the outset, dominating the platform in spite of being a minority of the content to be found on it. This entails a delicate balancing act and the terminology of the platform can help unify what might otherwise be competing accounts of YouTube and its role:

The business of being a cultural intermediary is a complex and fragile one, oriented as it is to at least three constituencies: end users, advertisers, and professional content producers. This is where the discursive work is most vital. Intermediaries like YouTube must present themselves strategically to each of these audiences, carve out a role and a set of expectations that is acceptable to each and also serves their own financial interests, while resolving or at least eliding the contradictions between them.

In the case of YouTube, it allows them to “make a bid to be the new television, convincing media producers to provide their valuable content and advertisers to buy valuable consumer attention, on the back of user-generated content and all its democratic, egalitarian connotations, offered to them as television’s antidote“. 
These discursive strategies have a legal as well as marketing component. As Gillespie observe, “what we call such things, what precedents we see as most analogous, and how we characterize its technical workings drives how we set conditions for it”. Firms seek “a regulatory paradigm that gives them the most leeway to conduct their business, imposes the fewest restrictions on their service provision, protects them from liability for things they hope not to be liable for, and paints them in the best light in terms of the public interest” with self-characterisation being a potent means through which this can be pursued. He deftly illustrates how the terminology of the platform can be used to avoid responsibility by defining themselves as technical companies rather than publishers. This has crucial significance within US law because under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act as “long as you are a neutral distributor of information and are not aware of specific violations, you are not liable for the violations of users”. He draws an important comparison to the regulatory environment which the telephone companies used to be subject to:

For instance, before their deregulation the telephone companies were bound by two obligations: first, they must act as a ‘common carrier,’ agreeing to provide service to the entire public without discrimination. Second, they can avoid liability for the information activities of their users, to the extent that they serve as ‘conduit,’ rather than as producers of content themselves. Both metaphors, common carrier and conduit, make a similar (but not identical) semantic claim as does platform. Both suggest that the role of distributing information is a neutral one, where the function is merely the passage of any and all content without discrimination.

The business model of YouTube doesn’t leave them with the traditional interests of publishers but it does leave them with interests in what they publish. They unavoidably make choices which shape the production, circulation and reception of material accessible through the service and these choices have implications beyond the scope of the service itself. The terminology of platform obfuscates in the face of this responsibility and this is why we must recognises the strategic conduct underpinning it:

A term like ‘platform’ does not drop from the sky, or emerge in some organic, unfettered way from the public discussion. It is drawn from the available cultural vocabulary by stakeholders with specific aims, and carefully massaged so as to have particular resonance for particular audiences inside of particular discourses. These are efforts not only to sell, convince, persuade, protect, triumph, or condemn, but to make claims about what these technologies are and are not, and what should and should not be expected of them. In other words, they represent an attempt to establish the very criteria by which these technologies will be judged, built directly into the terms by which we know them.

If we do this, it becomes easier to recognise the similarities between platform businesses and traditional media, as well as the interest they have in obscuring this commonality. Gillespie’s argument is that the discourse of ‘platform’ actively works against us in trying to analyse their position and how they represent their actions.

In the last few weeks, I’ve found myself using the term ‘playbook’ in a number of contexts. It’s typically defined as “a book containing a sports team’s strategies and plays, especially in American football” but I’m not quite sure where I picked up the phrase from as someone who hasn’t had much interest in sport for a long time. 

It’s been on my mind since reading Merchants of Doubt, an incisive historical exploration of a dangerous corporate tendency towards the deliberate cultivation of doubt in relation to pressing issues such as nuclear winter, acid rain, DDT and climate change. As I suggested in a post a couple of weeks ago, we can talk meaningfully of a ‘playbook for merchandising doubt’. In fact something akin to this was once explicitly published, as the authors of Merchants of Doubt summarise on pg 144-145:

Bad Science: A Resource Book was a how-to handbook for fact fighters. It contained over two hundred pages of snappy quotes and reprinted editorials, articles, and op-ed pieces that challenged the authority and integrity of science, building to a crescendo in the attack on the EPA’s work on secondhand smoke. It also included a list of experts with scientific credentials available to comment on any issue about which a think tank or corporation needed a negative sound bite. 42 Bad Science was a virtual self-help book for regulated industries, and it began with a set of emphatic sound-bite-sized “MESSAGES”:

1. Too often science is manipulated to fulfill a political agenda.

 2. Government agencies … betray the public trust by violating principles of good science in a desire to achieve a political goal. 

3. No agency is more guilty of adjusting science to support preconceived public policy prescriptions than the Environmental Protection Agency. 

4. Public policy decisions that are based on bad science impose enormous economic costs on all aspects of society. 

5. Like many studies before it, EPA’s recent report concerning environmental tobacco smoke allows political objectives to guide scientific research. 

6. Proposals that seek to improve indoor air quality by singling out tobacco smoke only enable bad science to become a poor excuse for enacting new laws and jeopardizing individual liberties.

Has anyone encountered comparable documents to this? The scale and organisation of doubt merchandising surely means they have been produced. But perhaps there’s a broader category to be explored here: the explicit articulation of surreptitious tactics

It highlights how coordination presupposes communication, suggesting that even the most duplicitous strategies of the powerful will tend to leave a paper trail. Where we see what appears to be organisation, even if the actors involved deny this, do we have reason to believe there may somewhere exist a ‘playbook’ or something akin to it? I would  tentatively define this as the formal articulation of a tactical repertoire that can be drawn upon in informal contests, even if the definition of these elements may be obscured behind a thick veneer of technocratic distance. By ‘informal contests’ I mean those where rules are not defined or a contest actually declared. The existence of a playbook reveals how advantages in organisational capacity might translate to a practical advantage in competition.

I’d be intrigued to know if these ruminations resonate with anyone, particularly those who might be able to furnish further examples 

Well over a decade ago, I was due to start a PhD in Political Philosophy looking at ideas of the individual within liberal thought. There are many reasons why I ultimately moved into a Sociology department instead, though my lack of regrets about this choice hasn’t stopped me occasionally wondering what might this thesis might have looked like. It occurred this morning when reading a collection of Bourdieu’s political writings (Political Interventions: Social Science and Political Action) that one likely outcome would have been a subsequent study on liberalism’s difficulty with collectives. As Bourdieu writes, reproduced on pg 58:

Liberal philosophy identifies political action with solitary action, even silent and secret action, its paradigm being the vote ‘acquired’ by a party in the secret of the polling booth. In this way, by reducing group to series, the mobilised opinion of an organised or solidaristic collective is reduced to a statical aggregation of individually expressed opinions.

The difficulty posed by collectives concerns the empirical refutation of this often unstated principle. Actually existing collectives, with all their emergent mess, make it difficult to reduce group to series by methodological slight of hand. The noise and assertion which characterise them challenge us to treat them as collectives. But the broader edifice of liberal thought is dependent on melting collectives into aggregates:

Political action is thus reduced to a kind of economic action. The logic of the market or of the vote, in other words, the aggregation of individual strategies, imposes itself each time that groups are reduced to the state of aggregates – or, if you prefer, demobilised. When, in effect, a group is reduced to impotence (or to individual strategies of subversion, sabotage, wastefulness, go-slows, isolated protest, absenteeism, etc.), because it lacks power over itself, the common problem of each of its members remains in a state of unease and cannot be expressed as a political problem.

How should we conceive of the relationship between individuals and collectives? Much of what I’ve done in the last ten years is ultimately motivated by this question. This paper last year explored the biographical constitution of social movements under digital capitalism, arguing that ‘distracted people’ have much more inconsistent trajectories of participation, with implications for the emergent characteristics of social movements themselves:

Social movements often make an important contribution to the normative order within social life but how are their dynamics changing under conditions of social morphogenesis? It is clear that the emergence and normalisation of social media entail affordances for mobilisation that have important implications for social movements. However there is little agreement upon precisely what these implications are and whether they can or should be evaluated in general terms. This chapters takes a novel approach to this question, exploring the technological dimensions of social morphogenesis and their consequences for the ‘distracted people’ who comprise social movements. Using the relational realist theory developed by Margaret Archer and Pierpaolo Donati, I offer a novel account of the constitution of social movements that invites us to ask questions about the emergence and durability of new movements that are obscured by alternative theoretical approaches which fail to recognise both the emergent and relational constitution of collectives.

At some point I’d also like to pursue these issues at the level of cultural representation. For instance in the representation of mindless hoards posing a threat to the liberal order:

The relation between individuals and collectives plays out at many levels. My concern is to reclaim it as a meta-categorical feature of discourse, such that the connections between these different levels can be explored. I’m still rather far away from doing this, but at least the ambition is relatively clear to me now.

I love the phrase ‘rhetorical rapture-race’ used by Thomas Frank to describe the mobilising dynamics of the far-right resurgence in the U.S. From his Pity the Billionaire loc 960:

Conspiracy theorists have always been with us. But Glenn Beck brought them into the mainstream. And so began one of the most distinctive features of the right-wing renaissance: a rhetorical rapture-race in which pundits, bloggers, and candidates for high office competed to paint the most alarming end-times picture.

Is this something uniquely applicable to deliberately mobilising fragile movements i.e. inciting crowds of individuals to act in a co-ordinated way without seeking to build relational bonds between them?

On loc 992 he cites a Republican blogger describing the results of the aforementioned mobilisation. Is the rhetorical rapture-race necessary in order to cut through the fog of depoliticisation?

Many Americans who had never been politically active, never walked a precinct, never interrupted their golf games, family gatherings, or vacations to discuss politics, government, or the Constitution, were suddenly gripped with the sense that their government, nation, and way of life were being stolen from them. 4

I wish I’d read Zizek’s Trouble in Paradise before writing my fragile movement’s paper, because this is exactly what I was trying to explore: how does this ‘imaginary unity at its most sublime’ inform popular perceptions of the mobilising potential of social media? From pg 97:

The ongoing events in Egypt provide yet another example of the basic dynamics of social revolts, which consists of two main steps traditionally designated by pairings like ‘1789/1793’ (in the case of the French Revolution) or ‘February/October’ (in the case of the Russian Revolution). The first step, what Badiou recently called the ‘rebirth of history’, culminates in an all-popular uprising against a hated figure of power (Mubarak, in the case of Egypt, or the Shah, in the case of Iran three decades ago). People across all social strata assert themselves as a collective agent against the system of power which quickly loses its legitimacy, and all around the world we can follow on our TV screens those magic moments of ecstatic unity when hundreds of thousands of people gather on public squares for days on end and promise not to go anywhere until the tyrant steps down. Such moments stand for an imaginary unity at its most sublime: all differences, all conflicts of interest are forgotten as the whole society seems united in its opposition to the hated tyrant.

I take him to be saying, from pg 104, it must be the case that a ‘we’ is invoked in order to mobilise across divisions, but that in an oppressed and divided society this ‘we’ cannot be anything other than imagined. The real work starts with the building of a substantial ‘we’, something that happens through the transformation of the social order.

It is only after the first enthusiastic unity disintegrates that true universality can be formulated, a universality no longer sustained by imaginary illusions. It is only after the initial unity of the people falls apart that the real work begins, the hard work of assuming all the implications of the struggle for an egalitarian and just society. It is not enough simply to get rid of the tyrant; the society which gave birth to the tyrant has to be thoroughly transformed. Only those who are ready to engage in this hard work remain faithful to the radical core of the initial enthusiastic unity.

From David Frayne’s Refusal of Work pg 222. My first paper on this topic is coming out soon.

Indeed, perhaps one of the reasons why democratic debate is currently in such a moribund state is that our busy lives leave us with so little time to study policies, collectively organise, or find out what is going on in our communities. The strength of democracy depends on people having the time to engage and participate in this process. The difference between the politics of time and the prescriptive utopias of the past is that the former does not seek to enrol people in some pre-planned utopian scheme, but to gradually free them from prescribed roles, furnishing them with the time to become politically active citizens.

Via Tom Dark:

Protests in the Information Age: Social Movements, Digital Practices and Surveillance

 Lucas Melgaço (CRiS-VUB) and Jeffrey Monaghan (University of Ottawa) launch the following call for chapters for their book on protests in the information age. 

Editors: Lucas Melgaço (Dept. of Criminology, Vrije Universiteit Brussel) & Jeffrey Monaghan (Dept. of Criminology, University of Ottawa)

In recent years, the role of information and communication technologies has been central to large-scale protests and social movements in different parts of the world. Ukraine, Syria, Iran, Canada, Spain, United States, United Kingdom, China, Brazil and Belgium are only a few of the numerous examples. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter and devices like smartphones have increasingly played an important role in facilitating and mobilizing people to take to the streets. Concurrently, the same technologies have been scrutinized by public authorities (including security agencies and the police) and have served to detect and curtail the activities of certain demonstrators. In addition, public spaces used by demonstrators are being increasingly monitored by surveillance technologies that range from video-surveillance and police body cams to drones. This book intends to explore the complex and contradictory relationships between communication and information technologies and social movements by drawing on different case studies of protests from around the world. The contributions will analyze how new communication and information technologies impact the way protests are carried out and controlled in the current information age. The book will focus on recent events that date from the Arab Spring onwards and will pose questions towards the future of protests and digital landscapes.

Potential authors are invited to submit a paper proposal on topics such as, yet not limited to:

• Surveillance of public demonstrations (including technologies like CCTV, body cams, drones and so on; The increasing monitoring of spaces of protest;

• Social networking sites and protest mobilizations;

• The use of smartphones by demonstrators; Sousveillance (e.g. the use of surveillance technologies to record police brutality in protests); Resistance;

• Mainstream and alternative media coverage of protests (including real time broadcasting of protests through apps like Periscope or Meerkat);

• Police use of information technologies in the control of crowds and riots;

• The reemergence of the Black Bloc tactics and negotiations of (in)visibility in public spaces;

• Political profiling of demonstrators, databanks and security intelligence; Big data;

• Geolocation technologies and demonstrations;

• Transnational flows of security practices and information; Policy transfers related to information and protest control;

• Usage of digital technologies in the regulation of public spaces; The right to protest at risk;

• Theoretical and methodological developments on the relationships between social movements and the digital

Submissions 

Submissions in English and of a maximum of 700 words should be sent before November 30th, 2015 to lucas.melgaco@vub.ac.be and jeffrey.monaghan@uottawa.ca. In your proposal please provide details of the theoretical framework of your work, methodology, the empirical case(s) studied and how your chapter engages with the main theme of the call. Together with the abstract include a short bio of no more than 300 words. Selected abstracts will be combined in a book proposal to be submitted to Routledge – Taylor and Francis Group, who has already expressed strong interest in the publication (Routledge is also publishing the forthcoming book “Order and Conflict in Public Space” edited by L. Melgaço together with M. De Backer, G. Varna and F. Menichelli). Accepted authors will be notified by December 15, 2015 and they are expected to send the full chapter (7000-9000 words) by March 31, 2016. Proposals must be original and not yet published or under consideration for publication by any other book or journal. All chapters will pass a double blind review process. The expected date of publication is March/April 2017.

From InfoGlut, by Mark Andrejevic, loc 1384:

One start- up sentiment mining application, for example, claims to “understand how the web feels ” via a “vibology meter.” 56 This version of prosopopoeia – attributing an imagined and unified voice to a dispersed and invisible aggregate that cannot speak for itself – enacts the fetishistic disavowal of contemporary capitalism, according to Slavoj Zizek: the simultaneous dismissal of the ability to comprehend or represent a totality and its reassertion as an autonomous, anonymous imaginary entity. For example, when “the people speak” through aggregate voting results that allegedly provide a candidate with a “strong mandate,” this combined sentiment may not reflect that of any particular individual or group (since widespread weak support combined with significant strong opposition might result in the apparent mandate). As Zizek puts it, “no one is personally responsible for it, all just feel the need to accommodate themselves to it. And the same goes for capitalism as such.” 57 The logic of aggregation is distinct from that of collectivity – the former seeks to create an imagined consensus out of an overview that makes up for what it lacks in depth, comprehension, and meaning with breadth, speed, and predictive power.

This is a really important point I’d like to incorporate into my analysis of fragile movements. As durable collectives, capable of articulating collective concerns and formulating collective projects to pursue them, become more difficult to generate and sustain, do we see a corresponding increase in prosopopoeia: a fetishistic faux-collectively that stands in as a purely affective substitute for meaningful collectivity?

Notes for the talk I’m doing a couple of times next month. First at the Political Agency in the Digital World conference in Denmark then at the Global Cultures of Contestation workshop in Amsterdam. Given I’m going to these places without funding to get feedback, I can’t stress enough how keen for pointers & ideas I am about this project. I basically know what I’m doing with the distracted people stuff (i.e. I spent 6 years doing a PhD on individual reflexivity & years working on digital sociology in various capacities) but I’m completely out of my intellectual comfort zone with the social movements stuff. I’m also totally intimidated by the size of the social movement studies literature. 

My route into this topic has been a slightly surprising one to me. Last December I found myeslf working on a book chapter that had balooned to 17,000 words. I realised at that point that my book chapter was in fact a book in embyronic form, one which I’ve recently begun to work on. My interest was in how digital capitalism is changing the conditions of existence for people within it: how phenomena such as the pluralisation of communication channels, constant connectivity and the destructuring of careers were radically intensifying the social production of distraction that has always been a feature of modernity itself. I’m interested in how the escalation of demands, something which is of course not evenly distributed, renders triaging necessary for ever greater segments of lived experience: attending to the urgent rather than the important, thinking about the day and the week, rather than the month and the year.

I want to develop a philosophical anthropology of triaging, concerned with its implications for evaluation and temporality, connected in turn to an empirical and theoretical account of the social and cultural changes which are generating this uneven proclivity towards triaging. I’m particularly interested in the second-order effects of triaging strategies: how phenomena such as information diets, life hacking, the quantified self, extremely early retirement, lifestyle minimalism and others can be seen as regimes for coping with distraction that also in turn intensify the underlying change in the self. Agency is partially recovered but at the cost of a narrowing of horizons.

I’m also concerned with how many of the factors which lead to the necessity of triaging in turn leave us enmeshed within the filter bubble: being tracked, scrutinised and modelled by a mobile army of opaque overseers, leaving us succeptible to manipulation, in some cases in a manner we willfully embrace for the convenience it affords. Again, I’m interested in the second-order effects: we can escape the filter bubble but there are cognitive costs entailed by it. Total escape can prove all consuming, going off the grid could easily come to constitute a life defining obsession. Continuing to live meaningfully under digital capitalism entails compromise, but the nature of that compromise is something which in itself entails cognitive costs, necessitating that we reflect upon our own information ecology, keep ourselves up to date with current developments and spend time conisdering how to best orientate ourselves towards this rapidly changing edifice.

Considering these issues in terms of individual lives has led me rather inevitably to thinking about them in collective terms. If I’m right about distracted people then what are their implications for collective life? The relationship between the individual and the collective is an issue that I’ve always been fascinated by and that I’ve written about in the past: some collectives we enter into involuntary but later leave, others are ones we discover as we make our way through the world and many exist between these two extremes. I’m interested in understanding collectives as relationally constituted, made and remade through the engaging of individual biographies, unfolding in concrete spaces of interaction but with a collective reality that extends beyond them.

In this approach I’m heavily influenced by the relational realism of Margaret Archer and Pierpaolo Donati. On this view, relations are not just patterns of interaction but an emergent reality which is produced and reproduced through interactions. Their analysis hinges on how such relational goods (shared projects and commitments, features of our relationships that we value) constitute collectivities: the co-ordinated actions of individuals become something genuinely collective through their shared orientation towards relation goods & the actions which these generate.

The same factors which I’m arguing constraint individual reflexivity (clarifying what matters to someone and trying to develop projects which enact those concerns) also constrain collective reflexivity. Developing collective projects requires sustained engagement of a sort which personal distraction by no means prohibits but does inhibit: it leads to a multiplication of obstacles at the individual level which, though individually trivial, manifest themselves through their aggregative consequences. In essence, my approach to understanding the politics of digital distraction is through trying to systematically think through the possible consequences they have for how fragmented individuals might attempt, or fail to attempt, to exercise some collective influence over social and political life.

I’m trying to understand how individual distraction manifests itself aggregatively in the characteristics of collectives (or the failure of those collectives to form). But I think the same socio-technical factors contributing to bringing this about at the level of individuals are having autonomous effects at the level of collectives: the ease of assembly using social media, the affordances which make it possible for a small number of people to lead many to congregate, make it unlikely that collectives constituted in this way will develop the organisational capacities to sustain themselves through change. I entirely credit Zeynep Tufekci with this insight, though I think I understand the point somewhat differently to her. The mundane effort of mobilisation, so easily dispensed with if it’s no longer necessary, served a consolidating function which allowed a nascent collective to develop capacities which allowed it to respond to changing terrain, adapt tactically and develop strategically as other conflictual collectives responded to its emergence and actions.

This is further compounded by what Nick Couldry refers to as the ‘myth of us’: which I understand as the conviction that social media has liberated a natural sociality, allowing individuals to take action as individuals. Here comes everybody! Watch those seemingly intractable problems disappear in their wake. Who needs organisations? In this sense, I think it’s a particular contemporary articulation of a much long-standing myth of self-organisation, with a naive view of social media and liberal individualism jointly engendering a belief in homeostasis. Now people have social media, everything will take care of itself. It is of course a myth which the social media platforms have a commercial interest in promoting, having corralled the ‘us’ and built a business upon monetising it.

Now it follows from a stratified ontology of collectives, in which collectives are constituted by individuals over time (i.e. biographically) but are irreducible to them, that individuals will in turn be changed by their participation in such fragile movements. In this sense, I’m extremely interested in the biographical consequences of social movements. I’d like to better understand these in other eras in order to develop my hunch that the distinctive characteristics of distracted people and fragile movements generate very specific trajectories of engagement with collectives. I’ve been playing with the concept of ‘seeding’ here: do engagements in fragile movements perhaps seed the social world with emancipatory potential by generating a proclivity towards future movements on the part of distinct individuals? But these are ultimately empirical questions and I’m not entirely sure of how to explore them without making this study into something much bigger than it already is. It’s already a bit too big.

In parallel to this, I’m interested in how distracted people constitute an environment to which collectives (fragile or otherwise) find themselves forced to respond. I’d like to analyse professionalisation of communications in these terms, as well as the kind of messaging that can be found more broadly. What kind of strategies thrive? If attention is effectively finite but divided between an ever greater number of claims upon it, what sort of strategies emerge to ensure competitive advantage? More broadly, how do collective engage with their members? In some cases, I think professionalised relationship management approaches could thrive in these circumstances (e.g. how to keep track of distracted people & keep them engaged) but these in turn undercut the collectivity upon which relational goods depend by setting up a hierarchical relationship between professional staff and managed participants.

Any thoughts much appreciated!

The notion of fragile movements is an integral part of my new project. I’ve tried to explain it at various points on the blog, as well as in a book chapter which will be published as part of the Centre for Social Ontology’s annual Social Morphogenesis series. But I just encountered a really apt description of the sense in which I mean ‘fragile’ in a George Monbiot article of all places. This is what I’m trying to explain in the project:

The trajectory of leftwing mobilisations in Britain has in recent years followed a consistent pattern: they go up like fireworks and come down the same way. People gather in a fiery rush of creativity and hope, then implode and fall to earth. The tumult of ideas, so inspiring in the early days, leads to confusion and dissipation. A thousand voices clamour to be heard, and competition and atomisation sometimes seem to dominate movements that claim to stand against such forces. Wars of attrition fought by the police grind hope into dust. People become burnt out and disillusioned. A few months later a new enthusiasm takes hold, and we repeat the pattern, apparently gaining little from experience.

While the mobilisations of our grandparents’ generation lasted for decades, ours struggle to survive for months. We create spectacles and debates; we raise interest and awareness. But we seldom generate lasting change.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/15/leftwing-evangelical-christianity-corbyn

I’m on the verge of finishing my first article for this project. Once it’s done, I’ll put this on hold until Social Media for Academics is finished. But from the summer onwards, this will be my main project. Here’s the abstract I’ve submitted for  a number of conferences later this year:

Distracted People and Fragile Movements: a relational realist theory of social movement in a digital age

It is clear that the emergence and normalisation of social media entail affordances for mobilisation that have important implications for social movements. However there is little agreement upon precisely what these implications are and whether they can or should be evaluated in general terms. I argue that much of the problem with the emerging debate stems from a lack of clarity about the social ontology of social movements, suggesting that digital technology should invite us to reconsider ontological questions in light of the empirically observable changes in mobilisation dynamics that have been the impetus for popular and academic debate.

Using the relational realist theory developed by Margaret Archer and Pierpaolo Donati, I offer a novel account of the constitution of social movements that invites us to ask questions about the emergence and durability of new movements that are obscured by alternative theoretical approaches which fail to recognise both the emergent and relational constitution of collectives. In doing so, I begin to develop an account of what I suggested are the ‘fragile movements’ being constituted through the collective endeavour of ‘distracted people’ under digital capitalism.