John Postill sees this age of protest as synonymous with an “age of viral reality.” His work on viral media, protest and the potential for rebellion is indeed a very welcome intervention into a debate so often marked by the puff of the popular press. In the UK, for example, the BBC recently broadcast a documentary claiming that “Facebook Changed the World.” Of course, social media has had a demonstrable influence on events in North Africa and the Middle East. However, such claims concerning the Arab Spring need to be seen alongside the growing impetus of a desire to fight on the streets with authoritarian regimes that are prepared to kill their own citizens. What triggers such a desire is not simply the product of Facebook or Twitter. See the references in the BBC documentary to Imbaba and how taxi drivers were used to spread the word of protest. To be sure, it took years of cruelty, injustice and poverty under these brutal regimes to trigger revolt. Revolutionary contagion needs to exceed the information cascade.
The role social media plays in building such a momentum for rebellion cannot however be ignored. Certainly in “democratic” countries, where protests and riots have spread as a result of anger expressed at the unequal imposition of austerity on people who had nothing to do with the financial crisis, the impact of social media is yet to be fully appreciated.
In the UK the student protests went viral for a while, but they never reached the magnitude of an epidemic of celebrity gossip. The necessary leap from social media to mainstream media is still a difficult prerequisite for all-out-contagion, unless, that is, the story concerns a footballer cheating on his wife. Why is it that this kind of mindless trivia seems to spread well while social rebellion does not? This is not simply a problem of the old media. I suspect that Facebook, along with wall-to-wall coverage of celebrity crap on Twitter, plays a bit part in suppressing anger as much as it provides ignition.
It is also a problem for democracy. After staging some of the most potent protests in recent UK history (smashing up Tory HQ and clashing with a royal celebrity couple on their way to the theatre) student desire has, it would seem, been snubbed out by bourgeois democracy in action. The British are free to tweet their protests, they can mobilize protesters online, and in some cases put a million people on the street, but successive UK governments still go on to fight illegal wars in our name, break election promises (on student fees and health care), hang out with the Murdochs, and cut social benefits and living standards for the 99% while cutting the taxes of the 1%.
So the promise of a confluence of anthropological cultural work and media epidemiology seems like a good way to cut through the popular media hype and try to get at the real potential of virality. Postill’s focus on Spain, where unemployment is currently running at 23%, is particularly fascinating. If some kind of tipping point is to be breached in these so-called democratic countries then it is perhaps more likely to be where the pain is felt most.
Many questions still remain though as to what is driving virality. What can be learnt from protests that actually “go viral”? Can these contagions be repeated or are such contagions mostly accidental and largely unpredictable? Is it possible to steer virality? What tactics help to push an informational pandemic from 2,000 Twitter users in April to over 94,000 followers in August! I’m now following Postill’s work…