The question that arises is what exactly the public sphere on Internet looks like. To what extent social media platforms are instrumental in shaping the lives in the public sphere? Is there any difference between public sphere “offline” and “online”? Questions are plenty and facts are mystifying.
People are giving vent to their feelings, expressing their ideas, thoughts and opinions—be it political, social, economic or otherwise on social media. How often have we heard that tweets or Facebook posts have been instrumental in stirring a change? In India, practices based on social media for social change are thriving unprecedentedly. Do few minutes of writing a comment on a phone or tablet promote effective social activism, is the real question. Is social media a social space?
Questions are high on various corners in the wake of recent happenings associated with social media enabled activism. Technology can be used to help raise awareness and create change. Does the increasing use of social media produce meaningful change that echoes the same success as experienced by the Dandi March or Civil Disobedience? Does an email campaign spearheaded by Greenpeace to stop the use of diesel in Mobile Tower carry the same effect that was driven out by Youth protest against enhancing pension age in different parts of India? When people partake in activism via social media, are they doing anything meaningful? Most people might agree that social media participation raises awareness on social issues.
Everyday, tens of millions of people chat, text, email, poke, tweet, IM and Facebook. They make friends and spot enemies. They assert and seek status and identity. They look for affirmation and for connection; they check out the competition and, above all, they seek the comfort of community. Contrary to earlier predictions, people do not undertake revolutionary, unheard of acts just because the medium is new. In fact, the rise of social computing is hardly surprising. The significance of this development lies not in the acts but in the characteristics of the environment. The social physics of online communities are starkly different than those of the offline world and that has far reaching consequences.
Literature on the relationship between Social Media and advocacy or social activism is plenty and is a rich academic enterprise. Very interesting terminologies have been put forward by scholars from different part of the word. Media, Universities, activists, intellectuals, statesmen and scholars have theorized social media in the context of politics and protest in novel ways. It is very interesting to see how social media seems in academic scholarship from the perspective of a beginner. Most of the debates pertaining to social media’s role are regarding the simple question if the people connected in social media are based on a real time experience. The terms such as Weak ties and Strong Ties, “Online world” vs. “Real world”, Networked Symbolic Action, “Slacktivism”, Clicktivism, Mouse Click Politics, Tweetivism, Digitivism. The scholarships are high on the podium.
Can Clickitivsm work in “real” world?
The virtual world is more than just a cyber-meeting place. It has morphed into a powerful vehicle for social change. It is interesting to see if Internet provides avenues in which public spaces take shape in the cyber world. But new technologies have also made the divisions all the more stark; old power imbalances between people with access and privilege and people on the margins of society are as present as they were before the advent of social media.
The serious charge being leveled against social media enabled collective action is that the spaces used by activists and users are largely mediated. It has become almost imperative to inquire if the online media enabled public spheres are in effect mediated by ‘vested interests’ or it’s a natural space. It is less clear whether rising social media participation translates into more meaningful and tangible societal benefits.
The social media as a tool of political communication and facilitator of civic engagement is under the shadow of doubt. It is all because the expected deliverability of social media is not proportional to its structure. Social media is too an instrument which is also infected by the existing discordances and deformities existing in the society. Social media is just an extension of the social world and not a different social world. The global system of communication apartheid and information poverty spurred by growing digital divide has virtually alienated social media and Internet platforms from its real potential. The vision of a public sphere cannot be achieved in Internet since it’s too a space monopolized and mediated by ever expanding structure of domination and power discourses.
Social Media: a mediated public sphere
Four factors are important in making sense of social activism through social media platforms. (1) Public spheres are spaces of discourse, often mediated. (2) Public spheres often allow for new, previously excluded discussants. (3) Issues discussed are often political in nature. (4) Ideas are judged by their merit, not by the standing of the speaker. But how far these criteria are fulfilled by web-based platforms cast shadow on the apparent potential of social media.
It is often doubtful that activism through social media platforms always seems to be mediated rather than being an act through medium.
Secondly, the criteria that social media can include those previously excluded discussants are far doubtful. Internet and new media cannot be a catalyst for representing the voice of the voiceless. Since the voices are mediated, all sounds are sponsored. Another important criterion required to make social media a public space is that it should facilitate discussions, which are political in nature.
How far the discussions taking place on Internet platforms are political is a bit confusing since the “like” mark on Facebook, video share on YouTube, photo sharing on Flickr, or signing petition could have a political significance, is yet to be investigated.
Moreover, the idea that the messages are judged by their merit seems to be confusing. For instance, most of discussions taking place on the Internet are purely immature and out of place. Kerala episode of film star Prithviraj, cricketer Sreesanth and filmmaker Santhosh Pandit are instances enough to prove this argument.
A perusal of social media content makes the picture exceptionally plain and simple. Look at the YouTube videos of film stars, for instance, if taken for analysis reveals that the prevailing male prejudices against women especially actresses are powerful enough and even dangerous in the comment thread posted on the YouTube pages. Comments on videos of film actresses are dominated by sexist prejudices, misogyny and lust. Orkut pages are used for not networking in many ways; instead they have been profoundly used for extra marital relations, illegal and illicit relationships. Especially Orkut tools like Open Chat Rooms, Who is Online, Chat are specific platforms but used for deviant purposes, especially for illicit and illegal relationships. A ‘sexsphere’ is already born, though it is hidden and clandestine. It is obvious that the social media spaces are gendered, class based, caste based, power endowed, racial and sexualized.
Each social media platform offers different tools and instruments for specific types of networking. The social basis of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube offers sufficient explanation for why such social media platforms are popular among techy-savvy organizers of activism. However, the specific tools available in the services are redolent of the realities of offline life. Therefore, it is apt to describe that online public are equally an extension of the offline public and it is not different in any way.
Social media is mesmerizing face of youth life. Youth mess up their life in the phantom advances of technology. Knowingly or unknowing their “clicks” are not meant to make a new meaning, instead it is to add and further incongruity and discordances in the existing social landscape. Nevertheless a new kind social physics and activist chemistry takes shape in Internet which is powerful enough to transform the way we give meaning to our surrounding based on the conventional paradigms.
Rather technology-mediated participation leads people to more violence and crimes; people are more communal and intolerant when it comes to the use of technology. This was seen during the recent Assam riots when people used the social media to spread rumours and hate messages. In no way social media is an avenue for free expression rather it is a space for mediated expression. The online sociality and techno-politics formed via social media are rather distorted and cacophonous.
The social variables of sexuality, gender, class, caste, power, rights, equality and a long list of powerful social forces, which arbitrate our social imagination in the “offline” world, are reflected and reproduced digitally on Internet. Internet is a myth. Activism in digital age irrespective of the medium is a myth, fable and fairy tale. The name attributed doesn’t make any sense whether it is tweetivism, clicktivism, digitivism or anything else. As is seen, the medium is the message, not the content.