From Self Expression to Collective Action


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From Self Expression to Collective Action

  1. 1. From Self Expression to Collective Action Social Media – Dr. Giorgos Cheliotis ( Communications and New Media, National University of Singapore
  2. 2. Introduction  We have reviewed ‘traditional’ definitions and issues associated with collective action and public goods provision  We explained that people’s intrinsic motivations to contribute to a public good may be threatened by a number of factors but can also be reinforced by other factors, which also depend on the characteristics and design of a community, including its organization  Increasing use of the Internet and the new ways of communication that it enables have created new possibilities for collectivity  In particular, more or less independent actions of self-expression can be much more easily pooled together, leading to the formation of small or large groups with a shared purpose, sometimes even fueling entire highly distributed movements for social change  We will review some of these developments, contrasting them to more traditional understandings of collective action, and in light of a new understanding of online collectivity 2 CNM Social Media Module – Giorgos Cheliotis (
  3. 3. Collective Action  Common wisdom in collective action theory and practice dictates that smaller groups are more efficient than large groups because group identity and norms can foster cooperation and action can be better coordinated through organization  Also, that free-riding (benefiting from the public good without contributing to it) is a key issue, which can be somewhat mitigated with the creation of ‘selective incentives’ (i.e. private, excludable rewards), that only active contributors will reap in addition to the public good which can be enjoyed by all (public, non-excludable reward)  This would lead one to believe that loosely coordinated efforts at large-scale collective action would be doomed to failure as coordination would be too costly, private rewards may not be strong enough to generate a critical mass of contributions, and many potential contributors would rather wait-and-see rather than risk a significant personal investment of time and resources with possibly minimal impact Yet, we have many examples of online collective action that works just like that can be considered at least a partial if not always complete success! 3 CNM Social Media Module – Giorgos Cheliotis (
  4. 4. Examples Many online communities work at the provision of openly shared tools and resources. Large online Wikipedia is a prominent example of a public good that can be enjoyed by all. Many repositories more examples in the production of cultural, educational and functional public goods (music and visual repositories, open educational resources, open source software, etc.) Several successful attempts at utilizing online communication to gather individuals with Flash mobs little or no prior affiliation at a specific location for a public performance that is usually meant to surprise and entertain Many examples of information and digital content disseminated extremely quickly Large-scale online thanks to the largely uncoordinated actions of large numbers of users dissemination (document leaks of public interest, internet memes, news, reports on state censorship and violations of human rights, internet vigilantism, human flesh search engine) User-driven dissemination of political statements and protest messages, via email, blogs, Online and other social media platforms. Displays of support and solidarity with distant others, protest e.g. during the recent Iran elections and ensuing violence, during the heated debates on the US health care reform bill, or in criticism of state censorship in China. Use of online communication for the coordination of street protests in many parts of Offline the world, famously in the ‘Battle of Seattle’, but more recently for nearly any large- protest scale protest, especially where highly distributed and otherwise uncoordinated groups need to coalesce together and where public offline communication may be suppressed 4 CNM Social Media Module – Giorgos Cheliotis (
  5. 5. Caveat  Not all collective actions will be to everyone’s liking; they may often challenge the status quo, for better or worse  Many of the examples in the literature are situated in the space of oppositional and usually left-wing politics  Some protests will be forbidden in the countries where they take place  The same communication tools that are used by, say, political dissidents, could also be used by environmentalists, but also by terrorists Our aim is thus not to celebrate any and all forms of online collective action, but to appreciate how they depart from traditional conceptions of such action and to recognize the potential for ICTs to enable new forms of bottom-up collectivity 5 CNM Social Media Module – Giorgos Cheliotis (
  6. 6. The Internet effect The more obvious reason why large- scale collective action online is more feasible is the lower communication costs for individuals, as well as the increased symmetry in online communication, where anyone can be a broadcaster to one’s social circles 6 CNM Social Media Module – Giorgos Cheliotis (
  7. 7. Communication is central for collective action “Many of the largest obstacles to collective action efforts are communicative and organizational in nature” Bimber et al, 2005 Locating and Persuading them Coordinating their contacting to contribute in actions as their potential short and long numbers increase participants term 7 CNM Social Media Module – Giorgos Cheliotis (
  8. 8. Crossing the boundaries  Interestingly, Internet communication, especially social media platforms not only reduce the overall cost of communication and coordination, but also promote the open publication and sharing of individual speech acts, thus making it easier to cross the boundaries between private and public communication  Thus enabling the formation of distributed spaces of affinity, collective identity and knowledge which can be tapped into for collective action  At the expense of some lost privacy in communication 8 CNM Social Media Module – Giorgos Cheliotis (
  9. 9. Traditional vs. modern collective action public-private boundary Goal Goal Strengths to Organizers* both approaches; in practice, they may fuse into mixed model of interaction and Participants engagement Traditional approach New approach hierarchical, more rigidly loosely coordinated, coordinated collective goals emerge from individual goals * event organizers, political parties, civil society organizations, special interest groups, lobbies, etc. 9 CNM Social Media Module – Giorgos Cheliotis (
  10. 10. Who is influential in new landscape?  Hacker-activists, or ‘hacktivists’ who  This does not mean that established combine advanced digital literacies structures of power disappear with the pursuit of a social-political  Several cases of politically motivated agenda persecution and even jailing of  Bloggers, and especially networks of bloggers around the world, when bloggers, which are collectively deemed a threat to social order powerful, even if individually  Increased state monitoring of online powerless, circumventing censorship communication and clampdown on and other forms of speech the dissemination of sensitive suppression using ICT’s information or calls to unrest  Anyone with a high digital  Outside of politics, mainstream “L”/literacy, i.e. anyone who knows media attempts to retain dominant how and what to effectively position by cultural-economic and communicate online (beyond legal means technical skills) 10 CNM Social Media Module – Giorgos Cheliotis (
  11. 11. Viral information and internet memes  Loosely coordinated networks of internet users rely on some shared affinities and the quick transmission of commonly understood messages across large numbers of users  This begs the question: what forms of content are more ‘viral’ online, i.e. more likely to ‘infect’ the minds of those who receive them and get processed and resent, instead of being filtered out?  Advertisers have been pondering these questions for a long time now; same for scholars studying the evolution of human culture and the spreading of powerful ideas (e.g., ideologies, stereotypes, religious dogmas, etc.)  Of special interest in social media is the phenomenon of internet memes, i.e. user-generated content that spreads like wildfire from one user to another through imitation and replication, often becoming an integral part of contemporary internet culture 11 CNM Social Media Module – Giorgos Cheliotis (
  12. 12. What is a successful meme?  According to the original definition by Dawkins, a successful meme is characterized by  Fidelity: maintains its identity while spreading  Fecundity (includes concept of susceptibility): high probability of infection  Longevity: sustainable infection  Several scholars have attempted to theorize culture as the dissemination of memes which have agency and infect human carriers who feel compelled to propagate them  The study of ‘memetics’ has been plagued by problems in reaching a consensus over what exactly constitutes a meme, and in finding irrefutable evidence for their existence, leading to much criticism  But the concept of memes is appealing to many and the word has escaped both memeticists and Dawkins, to become a staple of internet culture 12 CNM Social Media Module – Giorgos Cheliotis (
  13. 13. Preliminary lessons from the study of memes  Although a major feature of internet culture, memes have not yet received the academic attention and study they deserve  Possible reasons: moving targets, hard to accurately trace online, controversial and comedic content, fueled by subcultures that are not widely understood  According to study by Knobel and Lankshear (2006), successful internet memes operate in affinity spaces and are characterized by: Rich Anomalous Humor intertextuality juxtapositions Intentionally quirky, Filled with Juxtaposing starkly offbeat, bizarrely references to contrasting themes, funny , not to popular culture and moods, ideologies, everyone’s taste often to specific in a playfully subcultures provocative manner The same elements can be traced in mainstream popular culture and advertizing; also becoming increasingly common online 13 CNM Social Media Module – Giorgos Cheliotis (
  14. 14. Role of memes in oppositional politics  Successful memes, even those more squarely aimed at entertaining their receivers, exhibit often a subversive character, perhaps also a deconstructive character, as elements of a counter-culture that aims to challenge established conventions on propriety, values and communication “If we don’t like their contagious ideas, we need to produce some of our own” (Knobel and Lankshear, 2006) Memes constantly change, evolve, through appropriation and remixing, while retaining their original character, thus becoming more viral and increasing their longevity by staying fresh Countermemes can be produced to attack and neutralize undesirable memes Memes can be easily misunderstood by viewers outside of the affinity space in which they were developed and are thus distinct from mainstream broadcast content: often aiming to reinforce and propagate subcultures rather than appeal to a wide audience; but some escape these limitations to achieve broader appeal 14 CNM Social Media Module – Giorgos Cheliotis (
  15. 15. Thoughts on design… How does a social media platform encourage the crossing of private-public boundaries to ease collective action? How much coordination, organization and a priori goal- setting is necessary in order to be effective? Under which circumstances are users more likely to produce viral content that can infect the minds of many? How can a community encourage this? What is an optimal trade-off between protecting users’ privacy and identity on the one hand and encouraging public Think about types of online contribution on the other? content that have made an impression on you and what it is about it that is so How can an online community help users develop the types of appealing; also, about its literacies necessary for living in an internet culture and origins and message effectively communicating with others in it? 15 CNM Social Media Module – Giorgos Cheliotis (
  16. 16. Credits and licensing  Front page photo by a trying youth (license: CC BY-NC-ND)  Protest photo by slimmer_jimmer (license: CC BY-NC-ND)  Keyboard photo by julian- (license: CC BY-NC-ND)  Loudspeaker photo by corono (license: CC BY)  Photo collage by jek in the box (license: CC BY-NC-ND) Original content in this presentation is licensed under the Creative Commons Singapore Attribution 3.0 license unless stated otherwise (see above) 16 CNM Social Media Module – Giorgos Cheliotis (