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Open Spaces

Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media

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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 11:36PM   |  3 comments
social media

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 technologies. 

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 strategy.


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 centric? 
  • 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 posting




As ever more promises about new media apps (increased leisure! more connectedness! enhanced public life!) devolve into mixed-at-best outcomes (more work, not less! superficial reunions with no follow-up on Facebook! Isolation at the keyboard!) every new promise has the ring of the Carpetbagger's voice. The fine promises may or may not come true, but the world will be changed and often in ways one did not bargain for. Is this only a story of progress? If so, then progress toward what and whom? (That is, toward what understanding of a public, in relation to its own communication technologies.) As new social media applications suggest and arguably unlock new democratic potentialities, in their increasing scope and interconnectedness they also necessarily reconfiigure end-users as objects, not merely pilots, of their own communications apparatuses... always in line for the next gadget or upgrade, and possessing social relevance based on being "wired" and getting hits. Assessing these trade-offs is a crucial activity, as we barrel toward a time when it may seem as though there never was a world without tweets.

Social media has been so much of a norm that one cannot escape it but must in turn embrace it fully. From a political point of view, some politicians in Singapore seem to have quite successful utilised the power of social media, while others, have pretty much made a joke of themselves (

One such politician who understands social media is GeorgeYeo (, whose Facebook account has almost maxed out the 5000 limit. He posts pictures and status updates of his work and personal life, and interacts with his "friends". Oh, and he blogs ( and tweets too.

Social media has become increasingly important especially with the upcoming elections ( We've seen its power in the US and Iranian elections, so I think we Singaporeans are very excited to see how blogs, facebook, and microblogging sites such as twitter are going to play a part in our country's elections.

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