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

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The classic writings about media events focused on events as they took shape through broadcast media. How does this phenomenon of media events look different once we incorporate social media into the process?

Lippmann had famously used the term pseudoenvironment to describe the ability of mass media, and newspapers in particular, to construct environments for events that we are not able to experience directly on our own. Lang and Lang, in their seminal study of the MacArthur day parade, contrasted the chaotic and impersonal experience reported by parade spectators with the personal, immediate and warm experience felt by viewers experiencing the event via their TV sets.

With social media, storytelling becomes even more pluralized, and events become polymorphic – occurring in many shapes or forms, so much so, that we often presume causal links between the many shapes an event will take on. For instance, with #egypt, so much of our attention was consumed by whether this was a Facebook or Twitter revolution, that is whether the event as unfolding via social media led the event taking place on the streets. Besides the fact that this is an absurd claim to make, it takes us down this banal path of deterministic assertions regarding the impact of technologies.

I think the effect that we get when we experience an event in such a polymorphous way is best understood as hyper-empirical. Combined, the stories told about events by different media allow us to not only watch and observe what we cannot directly experience, but also to tune in to the feeling of this experience, and potentially contribute to it by becoming participants in the hyper-empirical realities we are feeling our way into.

You use the provocative phrase, “crowdsourced elites,” to describe the kinds of people who participated in the social media activity around these uprisings. Can you explain what this concept means to you?

It refers to the fact that elites have been determined via the wisdom of the crowd. The so-called problem of determining elites has thus been crowdsourced to networked publics and resolved through public involvement. There is a paradox, or more appropriately, an antithesis embedded in the term on purpose that I am very fond of. The term crowdsourcing suggests a dispersed and distributed process; the term elites suggests a concentration in leadership that emerges out of this pluralized premise. It captures the democratic paradox nicely, I find.

Democracies cannot function without elites; elites are useless without democracies. We see democracies as a way out of elites, yet elect elites to manage representative democracies. Crowdsourcing emerges out of a direct democracy premise, yet produces elites that are representative and thus compromise this premise.

Some have characterized retweets as perhaps the most minimal form of political participation, yet you argue that retweets play essential roles in fostering political movements. Explain.

For underrepresented or for marginalized viewpoints, retweets offer visibility that can be very useful toward helping a movement reach out to diverse publics. Moreover, in the context of escalating political events, retweets afford an intensity to the online pace of a movement.

Affect theory suggests that refrains, among other conversational signifiers, can be employed to convey a sense of movement toward a certain, albeit_not_yet_determined_because_it_is _in_the_making, direction. So you want to think of retweets as a variation of refrains, and in the book, I explained how retweeting in #egypt gave the resulting news stream about the movement a rhythmicality that sustained an always on, ambient online presence for the movement. And during escalating events, retweeting that employed the refrain of revolution or affirmed the revolutionary theme of the movement further amplified intensity and harmonized affective energies in a manner that reflexively and discursively claimed the revolutionary outcome, well before regime reversal had occurred.

Some have criticized social media for fostering circulation for circulation’s sake, an endless act of forwarding on messages, which becomes increasingly divorced from real world political action. What have you discovered here about the difference between voice and influence?

I draw a distinction between different modes of impact or influence, and, as I explained in response to an earlier question, I find that the impact of these activities tends to be symbolic, agency is of a semantic nature, and power, if accessed, is of a liminal, or transient nature. And the thing to keep in mind is that “real world political action,” whatever that may refer to, of course, is frequently not immediately impactful or impactful at all.

But I would like to say something about this idea of “circulation for circulation’s sake,” or “the endless forwarding on of messages,” because there is an effect that sustains, and it is the effect of ongoing movement, of some form constant drive without a particular direction in mind, of the sense that our energies are always on and on alert mode.

There is a word for that, but it does not exist in English – it Greek, we refer to this feeling as a sense of διεγείρεσθαι: a general feeling of movement subjectively experienced, an overall sensation of something that is in the making, an energizing drive that emerges out of sharing with others. It may produce emotions, or rationalizations, or new structures, or not much at all. The emergent energies summoned by affect and affect theory come the closest to this idea.

So, yes, there is something about the context of social media that urges us to share, and in sharing, we get the feeling that something is happening, that we are somehow contributing to a greater evolving narrative. Elsewhere, I have written about this as shareability – an affordance of networked publics, which refers to how the architectural construction, the design aesthetic of many of these platforms not only invite us to share, but become more meaningful the more we share (or at the very least, promise to become more meaningful). Sometimes, unless we are aware of what we are sharing and why, there is a real danger to get caught in a self-sustaining feedback loop that keeps us at standstill, rather than moving us forward.

So, when I talk about digital orality (in response to the next question), and the digital literacy that should come with it, I am referring to the ability to know when to share and when not to, when it is meaningful to express an opinion, and when it might be a better idea to step away and not voice strong opinions about issues we really do not know enough about, and finally, using these media to share, but also to learn to listen more effectively.

Some have worried about the displacement of professional news-gathering and analysis by “citizen journalism,” yet one potential implication of your analysis would be that these two groups play very different functions in fostering political dialogue. Would you agree?

Yes. Reporters have always understood their work as a first draft of history, so we perhaps we can read content generated collaboratively through social media as a first draft of journalism. Certainly the thing to do is to not antagonize readers but to work with them to make the (news) stories better.

But really, journalism is a form of storytelling, and so what we are in the middle of observing is, I think, a reorganization of how we tell stories as a society. Walter Ong (1982) had distinguished between the interpersonal conventions of oral forms of storytelling that dominated the pre-print era and which he described as a primary orality, and a secondary orality, driven by the storytelling conventions of the printed word, mass media and broadcasting practices, and the need for verifiability, since the printed form affords a different kind of permanence, as opposed to the fluidity of the aural and oral variations of storytelling.

The storytelling practices that we encounter on social media blend the drama of interpersonal conversation with the storytelling conventions of mass media in ways that invite us to think that perhaps we are looking at the production of new, digital orality. So the way that we are telling stories about ourselves and our worlds is evolving, and part of the confusion stems from not having the handle of this quite yet, not having the necessary literacy level to take it all in. You see, the listening publics exposed to oral forms of storytelling knew that the story changed and evolved as it was told from one person to the next, and that is how they internalized what they heard, to a certain extent of course, because they were still susceptible to the propaganda of rumors. And the printed word introduced a form of storytelling that made knowledge more broadly accessible but also frequently presented the printed story as dogma, which of course necessitated its own literacies in order to be able to read the text but also see beyond it and into the context within which it was produced and presented.

So in a way, in the digital orality context, we are seeking to reconcile some of the inadequacies of a primary and a secondary orality, into something that maintains the immediacy, the authenticity, and plurality of the subjective but also attains the gravitas of objectivity. Impossible? Nothing is, if you know how to read it.

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.