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Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times

Editor: Megan Boler
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008
Review Published: November 2009

 REVIEW 1: J. Patrick Biddix
 REVIEW 2: Mary K. Bryson

The short time since the publication of Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times represents light years in the rapid evolution of digital media practices. As both Biddix and Bryson characterize in their insightful, careful, and detailed reviews, the jury is still out on the question of whether one might "[posit] any uniformly positive relation between democratization and media" (Bryson). Bryson's precise description of the practice and purposes for which digital media are used for in diverse and opposing aims aptly conveys the spectrum of optimism/pessimism regarding the relationship of "democratization" to media. Her opening quote from William Gibson notes one reason for ambivalence on this question: "The future is already here -- it's just not evenly distributed." Biddix marks the early emergence of this debate, referencing Rheingold's 1991 optimism about the advent of "electronic democracy" being as much a revolution as the printing press: "Rheingold's prediction lent optimism to activists, advocates, and concerned citizens -- with this technology, everyone might finally be able participate ... Perhaps," Biddix asks, "ICT was the 'great equalizer' as foretold?"

The fact that the jury remains out on this question is reflected in two recent panels here in Toronto. At a panel on The Future of News, on October 2, 2009, featuring Clay Shirky and Andrew Keen, Shirky presented a version of Rheingold's optimism asserting that the digital revolution is equivalent to Gutenberg's press (while Keen argued it's analogous to the 19th century industrial revolution). On an October 15, 2009 panel on digital activism on The Agenda with Steve Paiken featuring Andrew Rasiej, Evgeny Morozov, Leona Hobbs, and myself, Morozov argued a pessimistic view of digital activism's impact, while Rasiej insisted "it is too soon to tell." I emphasized the recent arrest of G20 protestor Elliot Madison by the Pittsburgh police, for communicating with fellow G20 activists through an open Twitter feed, his NY apartment later searched for 16 hours -- this, in a Western democracy that smugly criticized Iran for cracking down on "Twitterists," and in which no major corporate media reported this U.S. FBI violation of First Amendment in its arrest of G20 Twitterists (Democracy Now!, October 2, 2009).

Given these ongoing public debates, I appreciate Bryson's recognition of the central concern of Digital Media and Democracy, that "what media scholars require in order to make sense of the vexed questions concerning the impact and role of social media within what we might call practices and contexts of democratization is a really precise and comprehensive theoretical toolkit." Her summary of each chapter reflects her theoretical savvy and the rigour and depth of her own longstanding intellectual and research engagement with "democratization, difference, public media, and, in particular, the critical project of unthinking neoliberal stories of a progressive modernity."

Biddix rightly states, "In Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times, Megan Boler and her contributors question the evidence of substantial, lasting, democratic change." Following his thorough and careful summaries -- truly impressive in his capacity to capture the central point of each chapter with lucid brevity -- Biddix concludes that

Digital Media and Democracy offers a grim but much needed view of digital media as not-so-liberating as we perhaps wish to consider. Boler and her contributors contend that we may have been duped into believing that because the potential exists, the reality follows. As Boler notes, "in short, these scholars and journalists do not buy the hype of democratization that often characterizes discourses around digital media." (34)
Indeed, I selected the contributors for this volume on the basis of what I believed would be nuanced and complex analyses of the thorny question of democratization through social media. My own view is not so much grim as tempered, a temperance that reflects a shift and transformation from my more optimistic leanings prior to engaging in these interviews with Amy Goodman, Robert McChesney, Hassan Ibrahim, Deepa Fernandes, Shaina Anand, and Geert Lovink, and in editing the work of insightful scholars and activists.

At one end of this hope/despair, optimism/pessimism, democracy/repression spectrum is Jodi Dean's question, "Why, at a time when the means of communication have been revolutionized, when people can contribute their opinions and access those of others rapidly and immediately, why has democracy failed?" She argues that we are witnessing foreclosure of politics through "communicative capitalism" -- the production and solicitation of countless expressions and infinite content that effectively prevents genuine deliberative democracy from taking place, instead countering messages sent by activists and critics with so much voluminous and empty content that "no effective counter-hegemonic" resistance can be mounted.

My students and colleagues want to know how to challenge Dean's pessimistic analysis --notably written during the eight years of Bush Administration -- and many in this edited collection offer evidence and arguments directly to counter Jodi Dean. One might begin by noting the crucial role that social media played in 2007 and 2008, when we witnessed the first African-American U.S. President elected in history. The U.S. presidential campaign for Barack Obama -- dubbed the "Facebook election" -- set a record in terms of youth engagement. Exit polls reveal that Obama won over 70% of the youth vote. Youth engagement in the election demonstrates that youth "grown up digital" engage differently with the political world; 55% of online youth have an account on at least one social networking site. Thus, the optimists such as Clay Shirky see the Facebook campaign and mybo.com as the cyber-revolution proving the revolutionary success of democratization of media.

Wherever one falls along the spectrum of the media democracy debate, without a doubt the rapid and seismic shifts in digital media practices, from the demise of news industry to the explosion of social networking systems, continue to challenge us to shift our modes of exploration, objects of focus, and how we pose our questions. My own investigation of media and social change combines conceptual analyses and qualitative research into how new modes of social networking systems demand reconceptualizing what counts as politics, democracy, citizenship or civic engagement. Doctoral student Kelly Ladd and I have collaboratively produced a major RFP on "Youth Social Networking Systems (SNS), Facebook, and Participatory Democracy in New Media Environments," to explore: how young people name and describe their on and offline community organizing, participation in social movements, and civic engagement; how SNS have changed practices of social movements; and in what ways the anchored relations of SNS users strengthen (or weaken) online community organizing.

Finally, with Etienne Turpin, I draw on Ranciere and Nietzsche to make sense of interviews with digital dissent producers. In order to make sense of truth in crisis, we shift away from conceptions of truth rooted in epistemology and tied to truthfulness of content. Instead, we focus on a new ontology of truth, how digital media practices reveal the productive forces that give ally truth with power, new possibilities and forms of politics. The challenge of shifting the "distribution of the sensible" is to understand how -- within the saturation of communicative capitalism -- the voices of dissent, for example, so often dismissed as merely "noise," can become audible and heard.

It is indeed my hope that Digital Media and Democracy offers, as Bryson generously remarks, "a great deal of conceptual mileage and takes us some distance towards the articulation of a broad set of related constructs and theoretical models" that help us to understand the increasingly complex relations of media and democracy, and to develop evolving tactics, and strategies, as we move through these hard times.

Megan Boler


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