[-empyre-] The Social Media of PostIndustrial Collapse, Recession and Social Uprisings

Patricia R. Zimmermann patty at ithaca.edu
Fri Nov 6 12:41:18 EST 2009

Social, Viral, Buzz

Social media, viral marketing, buzz marketing,
social networks: these four archetypes of a new
world jack in to the neural WiFi system of
postindustrial capitalism in recession and collapse.
The new digital snake oil, Web 2.0 and its social
media offspring promise visibility, relationship
seeding with proactive consumers, fast cash,
reconfigured jobs, and a new world of engagement and
fun with products.

It's digital vaudeville where all that is messy,
conflictual, problematic, unresolved, liminal, and
non-consumerist, is yanked off the stage with a free
new app rather than a cane. It's a place where
mobile no longer implies mobilization, but now means
having something in your hand so you can consume
24/7 and never be away from work.

Being Scared

Let’s face it. We’re all scared about the future
here in the empire in decline that is the United
States post Madoff, post Lehman Brothers, post AIG,
post bailout. Everything is precarious. The economy
and our jobs--if we still have one-- feel ambiguous,
despite New York Times reports that recovery is
sprouting up here and there. It’s hard to fight
back and organize when everything is diffuse and
vague and ephemeral, like a cloud that spreads
across an upstate New York valley but disappears
once the sun rises.

Better than Xanax, the hype and hucksterism of
social media smoothe over the edges of panic and
anxiety to pave the way for excessive consumption
and easy PayPal to snap up slap happy credit cards
for infinite upgrades and premium services after
free software and free everything is exhausted.
Search engine optimization replaces the messiness of
meet ups where argument, discomfort,conflict, a
perpetual state of open space relationships, and
unconferencing are for all intents and purposes
normative—but currently disparaged and maligned.

Networks, Newness, Niceness and Naughtiness
In the last year alone, a plethora of books and
webinars from the left, the right and the wired have
surfaced like submarines in the Arctic, breaking
through the unknown, frozen depths of Facebook and
Twitter and cracking through the ice-locked lands of
Digg and D.e.lic.ious. For those not anointed
digital natives, these mighty tomes promise a world
of networks, newness, niceness and some naughtiness,
like playing World of Warcraft with Chinese
goldfarmers to recover from the work speed ups and
job panic at your corporate job or cruising Second
Life for extra marital affairs with avatars while on
furlough from your university or government gig.

It’s a world where instead of using the internet
to find a date or hook up with some other
like-minded souls when you move overseas (the goal
being, in a quite old fashioned way, embodied messy
interaction in the sensorium which is the world
around us), social media ask you to have a personal
relationship with a PRODUCT. In this brave new
world, we’re all dating clean machines and
launching romances with iPhone apps, Blackberrys,
and PowerPoint. Talk about cylons…(this part is
for Battlestar Galatica fans)

As Dutch digital theorist Geert Lovink argued at the
recent Spatialized Networks and Artistic Mobilities
Symposium at Cornell University (mounted by Tim
Murray, director of the Society for the Humanities
), Web 2.0 necessitates an urgent need for a
critical intervention as we move from MP3s to
Napster, from personal websites to blogging, from
publishing to participation, from taxonomies to
tagging. He sees the contradictions in the current
moment: we all need these social networking tools
even more when the job market collapses and it’s
necessary to be in touch with our professional
networks, and when we no longer live where we grew
up and want to remain in touch with our communities.

Yes, I admit it: I’ve devoured many of these books
like Free by Chris Anderson, Viral Loop by Adam L.
Penenberg, Viral Spiral by David Bollier, Fans,
Friends and Followers by David Kirsner. And I’ve
red- penciled and covered with neon orange Post Its
books sporting lots of academic footnotes advancing
more criticality: Life, Inc. by Douglas Rushkoff,
The Wealth of Networks by Yochai Benkler, Here Comes
Everybody by Clay Shirky, Blogs, Wikipedia, Second
lLfe and Beyond: From Production to Produsage by
Axel Bruns .

Access and the Rest of the Globe
But...the definition of access changes when you move
your vectors from the United States to the rest of
the globe. Access in many parts of the world means
access to clean water so you don’t die from
diarrhea, which kills more people than AIDS. Denial
of service in other parts of the world means living
in perpetual fear of violence, kidnapping, floods,
rape, droughts and shootings. A slow connection in
many areas of the global south means a roadblock
with guns and delays where you can’t ask how long
it will take until service is restored because,
well, you don’t speak the language or the machine
guns just are too big.

Emergent social media fascinates me as a historical
continuation of the promise of amateurism to extend
production and self-expression and to generate new
publics beyond corporations, governments and
institutions. I like the idea of constantly evolving
technologies that shed their proprietary matrices. I
like gadgets, devices, gears,software, and machines,
even though they drive me crazy.

I like and use social media. I like thinking about
its possibilities for human rights work, for new
forms of connection and collaboration, for new ways
to invite people into big messy concepts and debates
that transcend borders and nations. But this same
social media perplexes me. And worries me.

For example: in early October, the FBI raided a
Queen’s New York house for 16 hours, arresting a
man for using Twitter at the G20 protests in
Pittsburgh. His crime? Tweeting to spread
information on police movements he tracked through a
computer and police scanner in his hotel room. Since
2004, mass texting and twittering have become valued
tools of mobilization among protesters. Funny, the
state department hailed Twitter as a missionary
technology bringing democracy to Iran in June. But
stateside three months later, well, that’s another
civil liberties story all together.

Left, Right, Wired
Unlike a brilliant-younger-than-me-humanities
scholar at a recent digital symposium I attended who
proudly came out as a technophobe, I’m more of a
techno-interrogator living in endless
techno-bafflement. I like this riparian zone (to
quote Helen de Michiel) between asking about and not
quite understanding Twitter democracies, UGC
fantasies, Iranian digitopias, and the gnarly webs
of contradictions imbedded in virtually all new

Whether on the left, the right or the wired side,
all of these books I've mentioned argue for a new
utopia on the other end of the broadband rainbow,
defined either by consumption (the business side) or
by democratic engagement (the side for the rest of
us in that hazy subterranean world of the insurgent
and the questioning).

Obama is crowned the Web 2.0 president of the
universe, the digital messiah who marshaled the
power of many through YouTube viral videos, user
generated websites and the promise of a rebuilt
digital infrastructure. He’s the new school cool
dude who beat those crotchety old school Republicans
by hiring some viral marketing gurus from Facebook
to translate and update hard core, Saul Alinsky,
Chicago-style neighborhood community organizing into
a national viral-buzz-social media marketing

Most of these books I've been devouring are penned
by BWMGNs (Big White Men of the Global North). Even
the corporate books need to flaunt their love of
equality now that the Bush regime is reduced to a
digital file on a USB stick, so they worry about
broadband access, net neutrality, digital divides,
data mining. For many, remedying the digital divide
(which is changing at an astonishing rate as cell
phones and cheap netbooks penetrate the least
developed countries) is just a euphemism for
UNTAPPED MARKET. Translation: Asia, India, Africa,
Latin America.

And most are utterly silent about any of the gut
wrenching human rights issues migrating across the
globe where the messiness of race, class, genders,
sexualities, ethnicity, immigration, war, torture,
and oppression raises incredibly complex issues
about the ethics of circulatory culture that extends
way beyond the ethics of witnessing through
representation. None of the BWMGNs are talking about
the ethics of circulating Neda’s death in Iran.
None of the BWMGNs are talking about the cell phone
images of the monks demonstrating in Burma uploaded
on various social media sites that were then used to
put those same monks in jail.

Hillary, The State Department and Social Media
But Hillary Clinton and the State Department are
talking: they are so excited about the possibilities
of social media to reroute trouble in the streets
into digital community engagement flare-ups in
social networks that they recently sponsored a
summit on social media for NGOs who work with youth
in Mexico, a country on the verge of descending into
civil war and becoming the next Colombia. The
Alliance of Youth Movements, comprised of
individuals from the private sector, the NGO
community, and “some of the most successful
digital movements around the world” met in Mexico
City, one of the most crime-ridden and dangerous
cities in the world, just two weeks ago to
“explore the role of technology in connecting
young people working to end violence.”

And guess who sponsored this social media confab? An
A-list of the new gods of the viral and the buzz:
Facebook, Google, MTV, MySpace, WordPress, YouTube,
and…the U.S. State Department.

Some Questions
■Could the State Department be installing social
media as the new face of soft neocolonialism?
■Is WiFi everywhere just another name for social
control and nonstop, boundaryless viral marketing?
■Or is it more complicated and contradictory than
we in the global north can even think?
■Why is every discussion about social media so US
■Are political movements using social media, or is
social media using political movements?
■Or is politics--whether for presidential
elections, Iranian democracy movements, or G 20
protests--morphing into new more fluid and less
confrontational forms we are yet to understand if we
continue to think in old ways about technology?
■Who is hacking who?
*a big shout out to Helen de Michiel for sharing
research and conversation culminating in this blog

Patricia R. Zimmermann, Ph.D.
Professor, Cinema, Photography and Media Arts
Roy H. Park School of Communications
Codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
Division of Interdisciplinary and International
953 Danby Road
Ithaca College
Ithaca, New York 14850 USA
Office: +1 (607) 274 3431
FAX: +1 (607) 274 7078
patty at ithaca.edu
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