On the Internet, No One Knows You’re a Student

By Adam Kingsmith

An old digital adage posits that on the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.

The phrase is in reference to the emancipating qualities of cyberspace. By virtue of the Internet’s unbridled creative licensing, gender, race, age, looks, or even ‘dogness’ can be reconstructed, liberating one’s ideas from the social and political constrictions of status. Online, a student activist can wield influence comparable to a government policymaker.

kingsmith imageInteractive socio-digital technologies (i.e. social media), provide potential youth activists with a communications toolkit that allows anyone with an Internet connection to anonymously evolve into anything, from journalist to protest organiser, with global reach and at little cost. While a digital divide marginalises those unable to afford mobile phone or Internet access, start up costs are dropping, and in the following decades, many more will be able to expand their ideational reach from hundreds to millions.[1]

Galvanised by inconspicuousness, socio-digital communities can radically alter old limits on the scope and sophistication of unsupervised efforts. In the past, group collaboration and coordination was constrained by transaction costs.[2] These costs have now been greatly reduced, making it easier for various grassroots activists to communicate and self-assemble online through platforms such as wordpress.com and change.org, and for these individuals to contribute to group efforts without requiring formal management.

However, anyone looking to validate either a purely optimistic or purely pessimistic view of youth-driven digital activism is bound to miss out on the bigger picture.[3] The Internet is not emancipatory; it is merely a means to such processes. Digital activism is both effective and ineffective, naive and refined, diffident and revolutionary, yet, the efficacy of grassroots activists to employ network technologies for social and political change will continue to proliferate as new social tools are constantly being invented and shared.

These days, the curation of information is more of a conversation than it is a lecture.

As opposed to distancing technologies such as television, social media brings people closer through the transparency of narrative constructions, and removal of censorship over images and stories. Furthermore, through person-to-person activity, the distance between those who report the news through social media and those who receive it is narrower than the relationship between news organisations and their audiences.[4]

As social media serves as a medium for an increasing number of voices and ideas, the line between producers and consumers seems progressively blurrier. We are realising a reality where media is no longer the property of oligarchies that can afford to buy multi-million dollar printing presses, launch satellites, secure government permission to squat on the public airwaves, and generally monopolise the information we receive.

Consequently, in an age of informational abundance, access to the means of production and distribution is no longer limited to a self-ordained priesthood of professionals. The freedom driving mass amateurisations of media has removed technological obstacles to participation, for as network technologies continue to emancipate, new methods of creating content, and new channels to distribute it, have become available to many.[5]

Moreover, criticisms that digital activism is simply apathetic, a “slacktivism,” are ignorant of social media’s versatility. The fact that barely committed actors cannot click their way to a better world does not mean committed actors cannot use social media effectively. Social media is not a replacement for real world action; it is a way to coordinate it.

Examples of a socio-digital coordination-action nexus are popping up everywhere.

During the Tunisian spark that ignited the Arab Spring, many local activists proclaim that Facebook became the go-to-source for up-to-date information. A diverse community of bloggers, writers, activists, and students were employing the popular social networking site to upload content and share information regarding what was happening on the ground. Content that Ben Ali’s highly censored media outlets were not reporting.[6]

In Egypt, tweets became one of the most popular sources of news, as well as a tool for coordinating activism and protest during the uprising that followed. Reflecting upon the utility of Twitter, several of the movement’s key organisers conclude that Twitter served as an essential “circle of relations” for dissidents, and that whatever happens politically and socially in the post-Mubarak Egypt, it will be reflected through the Twitter users.[7]

The utility of social media for activists struggling to dispel Gaddafi in Libya lends itself to this pattern. According to Libyan student activists, during and post-rebellion, Libyans everywhere utilised social media to stay informed regarding domestic issues, update the world about the Libyan elections, condemn actions against the US embassy in Benghazi, and clarify that the actions of few were not representative of the majority of Libyans.[8]

Organisational tactics employed by the Occupy movement relied on social media-driven logics of aggregation, which amassed large numbers of individuals who had never been actively engaged before. While the movement’s crowning achievement may have been little more than temporarily shifting public discourse, Occupy developed from Twitter and Facebook into an assemblage of diverse populations occupying physical spaces.[9]

Building upon the anti-authoritative precedents set during these youth-engaged revolts, when the ‘Casseroles’ student movement formed in Quebec to protest government policies regarding tuition costs and assembly rights, tech-savvy activists across Canada bypassed mainstream media altogether, choosing instead to self-publish their own stories online through personal blogs, Facebook posts, Youtube videos and tweets.[10]

Yet any act of digital engagement, regardless of size, can stimulate important dialogues.

Today’s ‘meaningless click’ is a form of symbolic action that may form the basis for tomorrow’s other kind of action. Be it thousands of people digitally discussing bulling in local communities, or rallying against rising tuition costs and municipal gentrification, or millions of people virtually collaborating to overthrow a dictator, or protest expanding disparity gaps and government censorship, social media provides those who would have been involved anyways, with an avenue to collaborate with those who would not have.

It is apathetic in its own right to dismiss social media’s political and social contributions as limited to inspiring profile picture changes and trending topics. Social justice activists around the world can use social media as an informational equaliser to tell their stories, manage logistics, and accomplish the many other communicative tasks necessary if critical discourse surrounding municipal, national, and international issues is to flourish.

As a result, larger networks of younger citizens now have an increased political clout, meaning that democratisation is less about political change driven by elites and more about the power of social networks. In some respects, this has initiated a redistribution of power from governments and larger private institutions to people and smaller organisations.

For older generations this power redistribution may seem provisional, even trivial. To them, younger generations appear erratic, impulsive, and egotistical. Sometimes we can be. But it is imperative that younger generations continue to use the emancipation afforded by the digital world to intensify our voices in the real one, not because we know more about media strategies than older generations, but because we have to unlearn less.

After all, online is the only space where a student’s bite might grow to match their bark.

Adam Kingsmith has an MA in International Relations from McMaster, and is Associate Editor of The Hidden Transcript Magazine. His writing on student engagement, social media, and Canadian politics is published regularly in The Huffington Post Canada and rabble.ca

[1] For a better understanding of the ‘digital divide,’ consider reading: Judith Hellman, 2009. ‘Real and Virtual Chiapas: Magic Realism and the Left.’ Socialist Register 2000 36 (1): 161-186.

[2] Clay Shirky, 2008. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organising Without Organisations. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

[3] For this ‘bigger picture’ please consult the work of: David Campbell, 2012. ‘KONY 2012: Symbolic Action and the Potential for Change.’ David Campbell: Photography Multimedia, Politics, http://www.david-campbell.org/2012/03/12/ kony2012-symbolic-action-and-the-potential-for-change/.

[4] Zeynep Tufekci, 10 March 2012. ‘#Kony2012, Understanding Networked Symbolic Action & Why Slacktivism is Conceptually Misleading.’ Techno-sociology: Our Tools, Ourselves, http://technosociology.org/?p=904

[5] Rory O’Connor, 2012. Friends, Followers and the Future: How Social Media are Changing Politics, Threatening Big Brands, and Killing Traditional Media. London, UK: City Lights Publishers.

[6] Alexis C. Madrigal, 24 January 2011. ‘The Inside Story of How Facebook Responded to Tunisian Hacks.’ The Atlantic, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/01/the-inside-story-of-how-facebook-responded-to-tunisian-hacks/70044/

[7] Zeinab El Gundy, 30 January 2012. ‘Twitter’s role in revolutionary Egypt – isolation or connection?’ Ahram Online, http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/114/32610/Egypt/-January-Revolution-continues/Twitters-role-in-revolutionary-Egypt–isolation-or.aspx

[8] Adam Taylor Kingsmith, 05 October 2012. ‘Libya: A State in Perpetual Transition.’ The International, http://www.theinternational.org/articles/262-libya-a-state-in-perpetual-transition

[9] Adam Taylor Kingsmith, 21 September 2012. ‘#Occupy: Culture Within a Counterculture Movement.’ The International, http://www.theinternational.org/articles/252-occupy-culture-within-a-counterculture

[10] Alex Fitzpatrick. 24 May 2012. ‘Quebec Students Protesting Tuition Hikes Organize on Twitter.’ Mashable Media, http://mashable.com/2012/05/24/quebec-protests/

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