Last year I participated in the 4th FLOW conference in a roundtable titled “Micropolitics in a Digital World“. Given the conference’s scheduling just before the 2012 U.S. elections, the panel sought to ask what were the implications of digital media for local, fringe, or other alternative publics and politics. Its two guiding questions were: How do we bridge the gulf between the scale of national party politics and the intensely local political practices that may more directly shape our lives? How do these kinds of political organizing shape our understanding of the multiple interlocking public spheres we inhabit?
Although the roundtable was clearly geared towards American politics, I was interested in it because earlier in the year Mexico had had its own presidential elections, and for the first time, Twitter (and social media generally) had become a notable component of the public debate. I applied with a response paper on the role of class and access within the digital public sphere, and specifically focused on the #YoSoy132 movement, which had rapidly gained notoriety in the months leading up to the election. The full position paper can be found at Academia.edu
My contention at the time was that the lack of access and the varying degrees of media literacy within Mexican society transposed the class divides of the offline world into the digital realm. I would argue that this view still holds, with two major caveats. First, I neglected to consider the fact that most new online connections in Mexico were mobile, so the contrasts between those with access to the internet and those with a television might not have been that large—though still considerable.
Second, and partly as a result of my participation on the roundtable, I’m more hesitant to assume that a lack of total inclusion in debates occurring in online social media necessarily translates into an unsuccessful political endeavour. At FLOW, another panelist suggested that politics in social media were, intrinsically, not as useful as offline political movements, that the only—or, at least, the most meaningful—change would come from people on the streets making demands and changing public policy. I remember disagreeing with such a characterisation, principally on the grounds that effecting change on a large scale to the lived political reality of a select group—for instance, teens lobbying and getting a GSA group in their small, rural community—would be as valuable as large-scale shifts to public policy, albeit in a different way. In retrospect, this argument could be used to counter my own initial proposition that lack of inclusion in social media debates was tantamount to a failed political project.
To be sure, the fact that access to online social media is highly stratified is a huge problem, and one that will continue to shape what social media can be and could do. What I would now hold is that, this problem notwithstanding, there is considerable value from engaging in the sorts of micro politics that social media currently allows. That is, as questions around impact are geared towards measurements of breadth versus depth, I’m beginning to wonder whether Twitter’s impact could be better theorised in terms of the latter rather than the former. And I’m interested in understanding how this would affect how we study social media’s impact in our daily lives. How are measures such as impact, success, or change more dependent on abstract ideals rather than real-life results? More importantly, to what extent are these ideals based on incorrect, or incomplete, understandings of the reach and strength that social media interactions can have on people’s daily lives? I hope to continue these lines of thought as I continue to study Twitter and its political uses.