Affective Publics and Social Media: An Interview with Zizi Papacharissi (Part One)


"image by Daydream V.2 by Nonotak Studio"  

Have you ever finished writing a book and then discovered a new work which you wish you had read at the very beginning of the process? A work which makes a bold and original contribution to the field and thus shakes up some of the core of your analysis? A book which opens up new paths forward for you and for many other researchers working in this space?

For me, with Convergence Culture, that book was Yochai Benkler's The Wealth of Networks, and my response to that work informed several years of my subsequent writing. With Spreadable Media, that book was Nico Carpentier's Media and Participation, which has in turn shaped the thinking behind my current book project, By Any Media Necessary: Mapping Youth and Participatory Politics. As my co-authors and I were putting the finishing touches on By Any Media Necessary, I was asked to review and blurb Zizi Papacharissi's new book, Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology, and Politics, which is now officially the book I wish I had read before I wrote this book. I immediately reached out to her both to do an interview for this blog and to come to USC to speak with our research group, which she is scheduled to do later this term.

My blurb for the book conveys some of the reasons for my enthusiasm: "I HEART #affectivepublics! Zizi Papacharissi brings enormous insight and much needed clarity to current debates about the role of social media in political life. Rejecting binaries which ascribe social movements to Twitter or Facebook or that dismiss all forms of online participation as 'Slacktivism,' she instead acknowledges the ways that social media has provided opportunities for new forms of expression and affiliation, new 'structures of feeling' that can in the right circumstances help to inspire and expand political movements. Her approach mixes theoretical sophistication with empirical rigor as it forces us to rethink what we thought we knew about the Egyptian Revolution and the Occupy movement."

You will get a taste for this remarkable book in the interview that follows, which touches on key themes, including a serious reconsideration of the nature of "media events" in an age of social media, the relationship between reason and passion in promoting social change, a fresh new way of thinking about the roles social media does or can play in the process of social change, and the tension between elites and the people, publicity and privacy, within democratic societies.

As I've watched events unfold since, especially the various examples of hashtag activism that have emerged in response to recent cases of radicalized police violence, I have found her perspectives enormously helpful in making sense of how such efforts do or do not make a difference in American racial politics. As she notes here, change in any form takes time, whether the kinds of street-based protests so powerfully depicted in Selma or the online movements that have dominated the news in recent months. Rather than being impatient or dismissive towards these more recent efforts, we need to understand how these acts of circulation both generate and sustain popular sentiment in ways that makes social change possible. Here's where the book intersects key strands of my own current writing around participatory politics -- we conclude that cultural and social factors, often operating outside the realm of institutional politics, may empower our participation, may give us a sense of solidarity and collectivity, and may thus represent important first steps towards other kinds of political change.


You write early in the book, “We feel for the Egyptian protesters fighting for and then celebrating the downfall of Mubarak first, and then Morsi later. We imagine their feelings of excitement first, and disillusionment later, but we do not always know enough about background, context, or history to have a full appreciation of their circumstances. Still we respond affectively, we invest our emotion to these stories, and we contribute to developing narratives that emerge through our own affectively charged and digitally expressed endorsement, rejection, or views.” So, can you break this passage down for us. What are the consequences of our ability to “feel” but not fully “understand” the political struggles of others? What differences does it make when we become contributors to these narratives rather than simply consumers?


There are events, and there are stories that are told about events. Most events we are not able to experience directly, so we have always relied on the storytelling oralities and technologies of an era to learn about them. What happens when we become contributors to these narratives, or stories, rather than simple consumers, is that we become involved in the developing story about an event; how it is presented, how it is framed, how it is internalized, and how it is potentially historicized. But do we become part of the event if we were not physically present to experience it first hand? That is what I am referring to when I say that we imagine what it feels like, but cannot know.

The obvious question that follows then, is, what does it mean to know? Doesn't the story told about an event also constitute its own event? I believe it does.  So we may think of different events, each sustained by the mediality each storytelling medium affords. For #egypt, there were the events on the streets, the events as they were told and experienced through Twitter and other social media, and the events as remediated through television and print media, and of course these events overlap, because the realities of the storytelling practices and hierarchies of these platforms converge and further re-energize spreadable storytelling structures, as you have been explaining and writing about for some time now.

The point I want to make with the book is that the mediality of each storytelling structure affords a different texture to each story; a unique way for feeling one's way into the event and thus becoming involved in it, a part of it. In my previous work I have used the term supersurfaces to describe the lightness, the evanescence of planes of civic engagement sustained by several social media platforms. Some have also described the form of engagement that these media invite as being of a rather thin or light nature, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. I wrote about this in A Private Sphere, and Ethan Zuckerman writes extensively about the civic merit behind thin acts of civic engagement.

And so for #egypt, as I found in my own research and wrote about in Affective Publics, Twitter permitted several diasporic and interconnected publics to chime in and produce, through the storytelling conventions of repetition (retweeting) and reinforcement, a collective chant of a revolution in the making, well before the movement itself had resulted in regime reversal (and some would argue that the movement still has not produced the comprehensive regime reversal they were hoping for). These forms of affective involvement can be key in connecting energies and helping reflexively drive movements forward. But they can also entangle publics in ongoing loops of engaged passivity.


As you note, there has been classically a tendency to separate out affect and reason and to be suspicious of politics that is motivated by emotion. Yet, even in the heart of the “Age of Reason,” it was possible to write about “the pursuit of happiness” as part of the rationale for democratic governance. So, can we ever fully separate out affect and reason when discussing political movements?

Never. But for some reason we really want to separate affect from reason, perhaps because we think they may be easier to control that way.

There is the tendency to want to separate the two, especially in terms of how we speak about emotion and logic in our everyday lives. But, in reading about affect and reason as I was working on this book, I can't say that any of the great philosophers who have looked at affect and reason intended for this separation to occur. We may focus on each term separately so as to define it properly, but really, so much philosophical work is consumed with explaining how the two modes of affect and reason connect and are meant to work together and inform each other, especially in attaining inner balance – what we may come to interpret as a state of happiness.

Affect and reason : One cannot exist without the other, and one cannot be defined in the absence of the other. So like we frequently do in such cases, we assume there is a binary distinction of some sort between the modes that renders them opposite forces. We make the same mistake in defining public vs. private, placing them on opposite ends of a continuum, and then falsely assume that to have more of one means giving up some of the other, when that is really not the case.

My hope is to reunite the two in terms of how we use social media to tell stories about ourselves and listen to stories that others share, thus developing emotionally informed literacies that help us understand and connect with the world surrounding us.

Zizi Papacharissi  is professor and head of the Communication Department at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Her work focuses on the social and political consequences of online media. Her books include A Private Sphere: Democracy in a Digital Age (Polity Press, 2010),  A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites (Routledge, 2010),  and Journalism and Citizenship: New Agendas (Taylor & Francis, 2009). She has also authored over 40 journal articles, book chapters or reviews, and serves on the editorial board of eleven journals, including the Journal of Communication, Human Communication Research, and New Media and Society. Zizi is the editor of the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, and the new open access and available for free Sage journal Social Media and Society. Her fourth book, titled Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology and Politics is out in November 2014 by Oxford University Press.