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Twitter, Democracy, and UFOs

Manuel Castells, receiving the Balzan Prize (the sociological Nobel) in 2013

Manuel Castells, receiving the Balzan Prize (the sociological Nobel) in 2013

Another figure from my sociological theory class that influences my thinking is Manuel Castells (pictured). He is a professor of sociology and communications at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California. His theoretical focus is on the nature of modern communication with special focus on the impact of technology. In short, he argues that access to communication avenues (namely internet driven) are disruptive to previous power structures. It’s unclear, he says, how this new democratic process will play out over time. But the role of technology (twitter, Facebook, etc) have clearly played a critical role in protest movements across the globe.

Castells has been on my mind frequently since I covered him in class last month. The implications of his thought echo every day when I try to follow the twitter “conversations” on my feed. The air quotes are there because it’s not clear if the intent is engagement or the repetition of a specific comment designed to score points. I was caught up in one of those interactions for a good part of yesterday afternoon and by the end of it had a hard time understanding where individual tweets fit into the conversation.

The other day I went to Castells’ web page at USC to look over his work. One article available for download caught my attention. Titled “Communication, Power, and Counter-Power in the Network Society“, it appeared in the International Journal of Communications in 2007. It’s an interesting piece (trust me) that says much about modern cable media and internet communication. I’ll quote some pieces from the article and then try to draw out implications.

I will also analyze the process of formation of counter-power, which I understand to be the capacity of a social actor to resist and challenge power relations that are institutionalized. Indeed, power relations are by nature conflictive, as societies are diverse and contradictory. Therefore, the relationship between technology, communication, and power reflects opposing values and interests, and engages a plurality of social actors in conflict. (239)

Two things are significant in this paragraph. First, there is a tension between institutionalized power and non-institutionalized power. Technology becomes essentially disruptive to the dominance (the technical term is hegemony) of the institutional authorities. Second, where in the past we’ve had two party conflict (think classic Marxian thought of owners and workers) now we have multifaceted sources of conflict. This multiplicity of voices can often get mistakenly read in dualistic terms when something far more interesting is going on. Modern technological conversation may be more like classic New England town meetings that the bimodal world of cable news programs.

The communication system of the industrial society was centered around the mass media, characterized by the mass distribution of a one-way message from one to many. The communication foundation of the network society is the global web of horizontal communication networks that include the multimodal exchange of interactive messages from many to many both synchronous and asynchronous. (246)

The key words in this passage are “horizontal” and “multimodal”. Communication streams are occurring rapidly with multiple conversations occurring at the same time or with conversations resurfacing into new dialogue. I just saw someone retweet a comment from April. That tweet is re-introduced into a new dialogue to make a point or restart an earlier dialogue. The horizontal is important because it speaks to the equalizing force of modern media. You may be a power-broker in institutional life but I have my 140 characters and my tweet gets out there regardless.

And it is self-generated in content, self-directed in emission, and self-selected in reception by many that communicate with many. We are indeed in a new communication realm, and ultimately in a new medium, whose backbone is made of computer networks, whose language is digital, and whose senders are globally distributed and globally interactive.

Castells uses the prefix “self” three times in that sentence. The essence of this new form of communication is personal expression (earlier he calls it “electronic autism”). This is where attempts to label other participants as heretics, hypocrites, or heathen becomes problematic. People writing on the internet are attempting to communicate their thought processes (often while still in flux). But we tend to treat the written word as fixed text, not the exploration of ideas.

The emergence of mass self-communication offers an extraordinary medium for social movements and rebellious individuals to build their autonomy and confront the institutions of society in their own terms and around their own projects. Naturally, social movements are not originated by technology, they use technology. But technology is not simply a tool, it is a medium, it is a social construction, with its own implications. Furthermore, the development of the technology of self- communication is also the product of our culture, a culture that emphasizes individual autonomy, and the self-construction of the project of the social actor. (249)

There are clearly individuals who use social media to critique established institutions. There are others who simply ask their questions they don’t feel free to ask within the institutional context. Still others use social media like defensemen in a hockey game (it’s on in the background as I’m writing), assisting the institutional powers and putting the metaphorical puck back in play. What Castells catches, however, is that the democratizing impact of the medium allows for shifting definitions. There is a process of social construction operating through which people attempt to find collective understanding.

This is where the UFOs from the title come in. One of my favorite articles in the sociology of religion was written in the 1970s about a UFO cult then operating in Oregon (sadly, it turned out to be the Heaven’s Gate group who committed suicide in San Diego following the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet). The sociologists (Balch and Taylor) interviewed adherents who said they felt supported by the group and its leaders but didn’t buy the UFO stuff. They then said that the researchers couldn’t tell anyone that they had doubts. Many adherents repeated the same warning.

One of the dynamics of modern internet communication is that individuals are free to share what they think outside the dynamics of institutional sanctions. This is consistent with the central argument I’ve been making about testimony vs industry evangelicalism. The dynamic of self-expression is important to identity while it is simultaneously destabilizing institutional power.

Therefore, not only public space becomes largely defined in the space of communication, but this space is an increasingly contested terrain, as it expresses the new historical stage in which a new form of society is being given birth, as all previous societies, through conflict, struggle, pain, and often violence. New institutions will eventually develop, creating a new form of public space, still unknown to us, but they are not there yet. (258)

Here’s where all this leaves me. Twitter and Facebook have no mediating mechanisms. There are no referees who say “that was out of line” or “you’ve missed her point“. There are no structures to bring people together for dialogue (although I loved that someone suggested we start a kickstarted campaign to fund dinner for four for two competing twitter figures and their spouses!). Castells’ last sentence is timely. We need new forms of public space that allow the positive attributes of democratic, multi-vocal, authentic forms of communication without resort to power moves.

Until those forms develop, we’ll need to show the discipline to offer Grace one to another.

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