Book review: Activism on the web – Everyday struggles against digital capitalism by Veronica Barassi

As we witness phenomena such as Momentum, Labour’s digital assemblage that pushed for Jeremy Corbyn in the 2017 General Election, we might want to remove digital activism out of commonplace. Beyond the rhetorics of the “phenomenon”, “social media-led change”, scholars have challenged the actual ICTs penetration in these activist realms by contrasting their relationship with digital capitalism. To what extent can they become bedfellows on what concerns commoditization, immediacy, and “digital labour”? These are central questions for Veronica Barassi in Digital Activism on the Web: Every Day Struggles Against Digital Capitalism.

This is an ethnography of three distinct groups of activists. First, she studies a UK-based initiative aimed at working for a positive image of Cuba, much connected to the UK left. The second one is a young collective battling for better public spaces in Milan. And the third NGO is based in Madrid, with the purpose of promoting politicized ecological discussions.

Barassi sees a gap in critical theories of the digital as they fail to address realistic settings. This could be solved by delving into the political roots of activists/users, inquiring into the self-referential language of the social networks. This failure at going deeper with what activists do, developing a closer look at their history and sense of strategy once on social media, for example. That could reverse the trend of having “thin” approaches to digital activism, as a “thick” approach would be one of more empiricism, cataloguing behaviours, mapping the real intention behind the use of digital assets in the everyday activism. To what extent participants are conscious not only of technologies, but of its implications, such as the evils from digital capitalism.

Indeed, digital capitalism can be a rather controversial concept. Barassi resolves it by furnishing her activist ethnography with three stable notions. By assigning categories such as the “self-centred communication and individualism”, followed by the “user-generated data to profit”, which leads to a discussion on “digital labour”, we are guided through the principles of her exploration. Aware that these areas are also objects of unresolved disputes among scholars, Barassi opens these concepts to further interpretations. In dialogue with similar explorations of networked activism, as seen in Castells (2011) or, more recently, in Gerbaudo (2012), Barassi’s attempt to rethink some of such meanings seems more settled as a kind of anthropological perception.

The author first focuses on activists’ self-projection through digital tools. The book skips normative divides such as the “new” and the “old”, “networked” or “non-networked” movements, as that would be to otherwise confirm a “thin” perception. Instead, We find the interesting idea of media imaginaries. While not necessarily connected with the digital capitalism discussion, we understand, for example, the reasons why a white-male group of activists from the UK has sought to transpose an “ideal” of Cuba to the heart of British politics. Crossing present, past, and future scenarios into the same media imaginaries appears as a key resource for them.

Back to the digital problem, Barassi’s ethnography intends to avoid a techno-determinist approach. For that reason, details on activist organizations emerge here as a priority for the study, as well as discussions on their routines. This conscious focus on the “human” part to some extent contrasts when activists admit that the Internet has” radically changed every day practices” (54);  it does not get clear how exactly this came to happen or to what degree their role as ordinary Internet users coexists with that of activists, or if both remain the same.

Barassi comes to later concede that activists switch between both receptors and participants of the technological agency.  However, likening activists’ opinion on technology with ideas of adoptions or concessions with the digital capitalism discourse seems a bit of a stretch. We risk to naturalize the action of corporate Internet giants, such as Google, by assuming that some of its interventions over people’s lives are not our concessions (browse on it, for example), while other actions (advertising, marketization) are so. The premises according to which one considers what digital capitalism is and where it extends to, how it is perceived, would need a bit more of development, under the risk of becoming too arbitrary.

On the other hand, by interpreting the interplay between activism and digital life through ethnographic data, we learn that activists are prone to negotiate the technological agency along with other values. Technology is the advent that gives a contemporary shape to their gestures, but which does not affect a hard, long-standing political core. Barassi treats this duality very well by allowing the digital discourse to be a  “contested space of meaning” (60). At one level the role of the corporate web is expected and pictured by the activists, at another, this is about each user’s idea of what the digital means to their lives.

Two final points approach the pressures from technology and its effects. The first one is about the “self-centred” nature of social media as an attitude-influencer. We realize that activists are rather critical of the “networked, individualist self” of the web, but that opinion seems to appear marginally, or on a case-by-case basis. In other words, activists might be self-centred, but a narcissist social media does not seem to affect collective processes of meaning and engagement, as they continue to acting as regular users.

On digital labour, insofar as no real consensus exists on this controversial topic, this book does not seem to side with the “techno-optimist” theses. Whether by clicking and liking exists as a type of work or not, digital labour embodies a rather virtual concern to the activists. Regardless of the kind of digital labour we are talking about, participants argue on the creation of a different type of “value”. Eventually, this particular kind of labour will not necessarily follow a capitalist logic, rather, it resembles a  representational goal, aimed at mocking “social worlds”, not necessarily a sort of production system (96).

As seen, activists’ accounts can inform the limits of the digital media usage, but it also sets the limits to scholars appropriation of this topic because it leads them to conform with much subjectivy from each user. Social movements’ action suggest much more complexity of terms such as digital labor, individualism, or immediacy than one would imagine. Therefore I wonder if an ethnographic approach is still what best suits this study. In reality, conversations have better worked to show that discussions on technology happen at a different pace when consumerism and technology are confronted with the activism reality. The book could have been slightly bolder by trying to translate other adoptions or refusals by activists, yet it shows a good use of the ethnographic when it focuses on purpose, rather than to confirm patterns for use of technology. 

It is noteworthy that the author can give a fascinating account from the ground. By visiting meetings, closely talking to activists, or relating to their past or present experiences, Barassi creates a valuable set of data that is captured under non-spectacular, media-oriented circumstances. Pity that the constant reference to “capitalist” discourses seems to lack echo in many of the activists’ testimonials. Instead of “digital capitalism”, activists seem to cope with the pressures of a generic “digital mind-set”, which may rival their old principles and offline loyalties.

The approach for activist magazines at the end of the book gives us a quick glance on how the legacy of struggle is far from being memorabilia. This part deserved to be further extended, perhaps by extracting more discourses from their past and comparing what we have in the present, if this doesn’t make another study. Overall, Barassi’s book has succeeded in demonstrating that, as far as activists acknowledge the pressures to adjust to a world of constant “new” digital capital, they also embody an ambiguous, slow-paced analogic side. In these negotiations, one must not assume that sides – pro or con – will be necessarily chosen. In that sense, Barassi’s book is a balanced and realistically grounded exercise.

 

References

Barassi, V. (2015). Activism on the web: Everyday struggles against digital capitalism. Routledge.

Castells, M. (2011). The rise of the network society: The information age: Economy, society, and culture (Vol. 1). John Wiley & Sons.

Downing, J. D. (2000). Radical Media: Rebellious Communication and Social Movements: Rebellious Communication and Social Movements. Sage Publications.

Gerbaudo, P. (2012). Tweets and the streets: Social media and contemporary activism. Pluto Press.

 

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