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From Social Media to Democratic Participation?

The first day at Transforming Audiences finishes with a keynote by Natalie Fenton and Nick Couldry. Natalie points to creativity, knowledge, and participation as the three central themes of this conference - in that context, what does it mean to be political in the new media age? What are the principles for the way we conceived of and carry out our citizenship? How do we engage in political life?

There are multiple conflicting views on the impact of social media on political participation, of course - a sense that social media break down public/private barriers and lead to new forms of participation, and those who characterise such participation as an incessant meaningless conversation which never leads anywhere. Taken by themselves, both are likely to be wrong - so what is the real story here?

A critical context for a study of such issues is provided by economics; there is what is still a very mild questioning of global capitalism and neo-liberal ideology, even though social equality has decreased as a result of the current financial crisis (and equality in media participation has followed suit as a result). There is a growing inequality between the rich and poor, and the health and education systems available to them; this is directly related to the central concerns of the mediation of these problems, as digital activists are likely to be relatively affluent.

Another critical context is provided by issues around the state and the individual; discourses of citizenship and participation have increased, but in themselves they are less and less practiced. There has been an explosion of online space which has increased the opportunity for political communication and representation online, but it's not used very well.

Political values are another critical context (here, being political for the citizenry now means very different things, such as lifestyle and consumption choices), as well as activism and engagement where the nature of being political has changed from membership in movements to participation in specific activist events and projects (perhaps focussed around individual issues rather than political parties). This comes a decade after the 1999 Battle of Seattle which kickstarted the Indymedia network, and takes many of its principles from such seminal events: flat hierarchical organisation, innovative use of new media technologies, bypassing of established political structures, etc.

Social media are claimed to be communication-led rather than information-driven - to offer a sharing of values and beliefs, a sense of ownership and emotional involvement that speaks to a sense of identity that is performative and mobile. They are seen to allow or encourage dissent through multiplicity and polycentrality, and to be hard to censure; they are described as predicated on self-communication to a mass audience, as Castells has put it.

But these characteristics also raise crucial questions: when does communicating to a network of friends become political, for example; does knowing more of the details of a democratic failure (such as the recent elections in Iran) really make a difference? Does the paradigmatic shift pointed to by these characteristics really also lead to a radical change in political practices? An alternative view is that social media simply provide another way for political elites to entrench their power; that they increase political and economic concentration and aid commodification even in spite of the more active role played by what Castells calls the creative audience; that participation in social media simply allows advertisers and others to target us much more effectively based on the increased amount of information available online about us (where participating online is simply a contribution to the automatic co-creation of an online profile of each of us as consumers); that social media lead to the creation of a stratified 'eyeball economy'; that social media are a platform for the establishment of increased surveillance and censorship, and replicate social inequalities.

Nick follows on from this by highlighting the methodological question of identifying the actual consequences of what audiences turned content creators now do. It is necessary to move from the production/text/audience paradigm of media research to researching practices that are oriented or related to media; Lasswell's question of 'who says what in which channel with what effect?' is too blunt for studying the multidirectional spaces of communication which we are now confronted with. A more useful set of questions is: 'who does what with or in relation to what other actions?', and 'why it is being done, in articulation with what other purposes, frames, and practices?'

Nick suggests following a definition of politics as the authoritative allocation of goods, services, and values, and in this context, online media offer new possibilities for expanding poltical voice: there are more new diverse voices available to us (though it is not necessarily clear who is speaking, where they are, and who they are speaking to), there is greater mutual awareness of these voices (and by corollary, collaboration between them as they respond to one another and recirculate one another's material), there is the potential for new scales of political organisation (even while bypassing existing national or global organisations), there is a possibilty for a new understanding of what spaces are required for political organisation (in terms of technological, but also of organisational frameworks), and a potential for new intensities of listening to this expanding political voice (governments no longer have the ability to ignore inconvenient voices).

So, it is possible to imagine new ways of setting the idea of society as a community of citizens back into motion - but will our inherited descriptive language mislead us? We must exercise caution in our work, Nick suggests: while levels of activity in participation may be stable or even increase, the same may not be true for the range of participants taking place. Upsurges of cross-class, cross-ethnicity participation as for example around the Obama campaign may not be representative for a broader shift towards wide-based political participation; rather, they may be the exception from the rule.

Similarly, are practices of voice articulated to processes of government or not; do we have the means for them to be incorporated into a wider process of policy development, or do they remain separate from it and thus inconsequential? Is there a potential for a reversal towards de-democratisation, through the influence of trust networks and their organisation (as they switch from an organisation around political ideologies towards a basis around other niche interests)?

That said, citizen acts of media circulation do change the space of government and politics. It is important to question the myth of the mediated centre (and thus the importance of major media organisations as crucial, socially central passage points within the media landscape), to highlight the neoliberally inspired commodification of online practice, and to examine the views of governments on their interactions with citizens (the UK government has now articulated its 'duty to involve' citizens in planning, and the Obama administration has issued its Open Government Directive), and the extent of their attention to such citizen voices.

Practices of self-representation may proliferate, then, but may fail to be incorporated into political deliberation. As Natalie sums up, how do we transcend political capitalism to enable the practice of participatory democracy? Democratic practice does not just rely on access; there must also be due consideration of the terms on which that access is structured. Access to communication is far larger than the political counterpower actually wielded by users. Will such users be able to tackle the existing power structures in the near or medium-term future?

Communication and production alone are pointless; it is what uses such practices are put to that matters, and in which contexts such activity takes place. The wider structural context in which networks are formed and exist is crucial; social networking forces us to recognise the destabilisation of producer and consumer, but that understanding alone is not alone. Having access to the means of production does not equate to participating in democracy; the questions around such access and participation in communication which Nick raised must also be addressed. To do so forces us to rethink democracy (and de-democratisation in a globally mediated age).

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