Is Facebook surrogate democracy?

Once more, Facebook and other social networking sites are the focus of academic discourse. The inaugural issue of Global Media Journal (open source) includes one paper which argues strongly that in our contemporary context, “information, communication and participation” are surrogates for “motivation, judgment and action”, i.e., for democratic political engagement.

This implies, in turn, that we may be settling for publicity in the place of the more the demanding democratic goods of politicization and equality. Somewhat more ominously, the popular embrace of these surrogates via emerging media technologies may actually undermine the prospect of a politics aimed at more radical outcomes. (Darin Barney [2008] Politics and Emerging Media: The Revenge of Publicity. Global Media Journal 1[1])

Although this position is far more subtle than the traditional media studies argument between academics who understand media effects as the linear adaption of media messages by passive/receptive audiences and other observers who articulate notions of active audiences/viewsers, an immediate question to these authors still arises. Are the participants in such Web 2.0 sites the same target group who would have otherwise engaged in “more radical” politics? Or are they today’s equivalent of those members of previous generations who may well have engaged actively with media (television, newspapers, etc.) in their private lives, but did not actively work towards active politicization or radical democracy. [One of my favourite examples of radical engagement with media in private spaces is Constance Penley’s (1997) NASA/Trek: Popular Science and Sex in America. Verso]

On optimistic days, I’d point to the activisation of Facebook users who join, e.g., the CAAT (Campaign Against Arms Trade) group. On more pessimistic days, my first reaction to social networking sites is the huge problem arising from the amount of personal information we voluntarily make public. The KGB, the CIA, public relations companies and marketing managers would have paid exorbitant sums for this info in previous eras.


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