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Social Media and Brexit

By Daniel Miller, on 27 June 2016

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One of the common claims made about social media is that it has facilitated a new form of political intervention aligned with the practices and inclinations of the young. Last week I attended the launch of an extremely good book by Henry Jenkins and his colleagues called By Any Media Necessary which documents how young people use social and other media to become politically involved, demonstrating that this is real politics not merely ‘slacktivism’, a mere substitute for such political involvement.

And yet, currently I am seeing social media buzzing with young people advocating a petition to revoke the Brexit vote, which only highlights the absence of a similar ‘buzz’ prior to the vote. I await more scholarly studies in confirmation, but my impression is that we did not see the kind of massive activist campaign by young people to prevent Brexit that we saw with campaigns behind Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK.

The failure to create an attractive activist-led mass social media campaign to get young people to vote for Remain is reflected in the figures; although 18-24 year-olds were the most favourable segment towards Remain, only 36% of this group actually voted at all. As such, Brexit represents a catastrophic failure in young people’s social media, from which we need to learn. Being based in ethnography, our Why We Post project argued that we need to study the absence of politics in ordinary people’s social media as much as focusing on when it does appear. But the key lesson is surely that just because social media can facilitate young people’s involvement in politics doesn’t mean it will, even when that politics impacts upon the young.

One possibility is that social media favours a more radical idealistic agenda. By contrast, even though the impact of Brexit might be greater and more tangible, the remain campaign was led by a conservative prime minister, backing a Europe associate with bureaucracy and corporate interest, and was a messy grouping of people with different ideological perspectives, that made it perhaps less susceptible to the social media mechanisms of aggregated sharing.

At the same time I would claim that our work can help us to understand the result. My own book Social Media in an English Village is centred on the way English people re-purposed social media as a mechanism for keeping ‘others’, and above all one’s neighbours, at a distance. I cannot demonstrate this but I would argue that by supporting Brexit the English were doing in politics at a much larger scale exactly what my book claims they were doing to their neighbours at a local level: expressing a sense that ‘others’ were getting too close and too intrusive and needed to be pushed back to some more appropriate distance. And it is this rationale which may now have devastated the prospects for young people in England.

Hear Daniel Miller talk about social media and politics in this Why We Post podcast.

Something we take for granted in the digital age

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 14 December 2012

Photo: Enkhtuvshin’s 5DmkII (Creative Commons)

The other day I was talking with my friend via Skype, whilst at the same time using my smartphone to check some information. I couldn’t find it anywhere. At last, I had to hang up the call and return to the library to find my phone, before suddenly realising that I was, in fact, holding my phone, talking to it when I was trying to find it. This anecdote provoked much laughter from my friends. However it may be more than a joke. Why didn’t I notice the phone? Obviously the mediation of technology in this communication has been ignored, which would be regarded as another example of the humility of things – “the more effective the digital technology, the more we tend to lose our consciousness of the digital as a material and mechanical process” (Horst & Miller 2012: 25). As such, it is no surprise speed at which people now have taken the digital for granted in the digital age.

Despite the popularity and saturation of digital technologies in many places, no generation of human beings has yet lived their whole life span in this digital age. Many of the earlier writings concerned the digital media (the Internet, cyberspace) as a “virtual” place. As the opposite of the “real”, “virtual” seems less real, and thus less valid to represent the authenticity of humanity. Then why bother to study a “virtual” place? It is safe to say that human kind have never just lives in a tangible world since the very beginning of human culture. ‘Virtuality’ is neither new, nor specific, to the digital world. We all live in a culturally and spiritually structured world which involves a huge amount of imaginative aspects: the legend of the tribe, the memory of the ancestors, or forms of art, etc. Culture, as shared systems of imagination and practice, shapes people’s idea of kinship, identity, community, and society – in sum, the very deepest assumptions about being a human being in the world. In this regard, the digital world ontologically does not differ from any other worlds at all.

Nevertheless there is something unique about the digital. Digital has created an ‘always-on’ lifestyle (see boyd 2011:72), in which the boundary between online and offline has become blurred. Being ‘always-on’ does not literally mean always-on the Internet, but rather always having the capacity of being connected. Also being ‘always-on’ does not necessarily means being always accessible. You can leave the phone unanswered or ignore the messages on IM (instant message), and individuals have quickly developed a sophisticated strategy for communication with a whole palette of possible digital communicative channels (see the idea of polymedia). The primary concern of media choice has shifted from an emphasis on the affordances of media to an emphasis upon the social and emotional consequences which as been articulated by the media choice: one medium may be good for arguing or avoiding arguments; one may be suitable for flirting or communicating secrets, so on and so forth. ‘Always-on’ and ‘polymedia’ would mean different things in different social milieu, but one thing is for sure: we can no longer just examine the binary opposition of online or offline; or concentrate on one single medium to analyze people’s communication in the digital age.

References

boyd, danah. 2011. “Participating in the Always-On Lifestyle”, in Graham Meike & Sherman Young (eds) Media Convergence. Pp. 71-76.

Horst, Heather A. & Daniel Miller. 2012. Digital Anthropology. London: Berg.