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

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Much writing about new media and politics has focused on whether networked communications have allowed for an increased flow of information or has empowered new forms of mobilization. What do you see as the limits of framing new media in this way?

I do not think that we are inherently limited by these approaches. But here is what happens when we approach research under that lens: we tend to look for certain types of impact that do not exist, and then when we do not find them, we are disappointed, disillusioned, or just pessimistic about the usefulness of online media. For example, when we talk about the increased flow of information or the empowerment offered by new forms of mobilization, the inherent assumption is that there will be a democratizing effect for the societies involved, and that it will follow suit rather promptly. But this cannot happen, because change is gradual. And because technologies offer pathways to change and not immediate transformation of the social, political, cultural, economic habitus.

I am not suggesting that we abandon questions having to do with the increased flow of information or empowering new forms of mobilization altogether. I would not be able to ask the questions I now ask, were it not for the foundation those research directions offered. But I suggest that if we examine how these platforms work under the lens of storytelling, then we are able to study how they support storytelling, understand the different textures of stories they invite, describe the modalities of engagement these stories sustain, and in general, place them within the greater context of what storytelling means, and has meant for evolving societies. Storytelling (of the self, of everyday events, and of societies) enables sensemaking, and that is where the impact of these platforms lies.

And so this way, we do not waste time looking for immediate legislative, economic, political impact to emerge out of the ways in which we put these technologies to use. The impact lies elsewhere. For publics that are convened online around affective commonalities, impact is symbolic, agency is claimed discursively and is of a semantic nature, and power accessed is liminal. And, keep in mind, symbolic impact is important, because it liberates the imagination. As Castoriadis says, “revolution does not mean torrents of blood, the taking of the Winter Palace, and so on. Revolution means a radical transformation of society’s institutions.” And one cannot transform these institutions without first reclaiming and redefining their symbolic underpinnings; what they mean and what they should mean for societies.

Your focus here is on Twitter both as a technological platform and as a set of encrusted social and cultural practices that have grown up around it. How can we think about what Twitter is and how it has influenced contemporary political movements without falling into the trap of technological determinism?

I have come to understand Twitter, and other social media platforms, as structures of feeling; soft structures of feeling. I borrow the term from Raymond Williams, who used the term in the Long Revolution (1961) to describe the potential that lies in the emergent; the power and agency that may derive from the volatility of social experiences in the making. Williams defined structures of feeling as social experiences in solution, and explained that they reflect the culture, the feeling, and the mood of a particular moment in time. And so he pointed to the industrial novel of the 1840s as an example of one structure of feeling that emerged out of the development of industrial capitalism and summed up middle-class consciousness.

But there are countless examples. Music has presented an essential structure of feeling for many movements. Think of songs and the role they played in the civil rights movement, or in the counter-culture movement. Art, in the many forms or shapes it can take can support or reflect distinct or overlapping structures of feeling.

In the same vein, I understand collaborative narratives organized by hashtags on Twitter as structures of feeling. Tags like #yesallwomen, #ferguson represent structures of feeling, that connect (or divide) differentiated classes of people and complex relations of structures around subjective and affectively charged expressions, restraints, impulses, tensions, and tones. Technologies may network us, but it is our stories, emergent in these structures of feeling, that connect us (or disconnect us, for that matter).

As you note, both the Occupy Wall Street and Arab Spring movements were “leaderless” yet the news media and the public have responded to them in very different ways. What accounts for the differences?

Our own insecurities, ultimately, and the media frequently reflect those. Depending on those, we view certain movements that are termed leaderless as safe, and others as threatening. My own view is that there is no such thing as a leaderless movement. Leadership can be dispersed, it can be shared, it can be connective (as described by Bennett and Segerberg in Connective Action), or it can be very concentrated. But as anyone who has had experience with being actively involved with movements can attest to, some form of leadership always exists or emerges in movements.

I grew up in a country where there is a movement about everything and protests are our daily pastime – and these have their leaders, however transient or lasting they may be.

 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.