Digital media and the spatial transformation of public contention

25Apr2017 30Apr2017


The rapid development of social media platforms is affecting public communication and mobilization around contentious issues. The series of workshops on ‘Trajectories of Publicness and Contestation’ traces these developments along three axes: temporality, materiality and spatiality. This third workshop in the series explores and theorizes how the rapid development of online platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Tumblr, is affecting the spatial configuration of public contention.

Location: Nottingham

In this workshop, we will be focusing on three sets of changes in the spatial character and dynamics of public contention. First, in protest communication and mobilization, we see new connections emerging between the local, national, and transnational. As mobile technologies have become omnipresent in contemporary protest, street activity becomes inextricably entangled with national and transnational public communication (Couldry 2014; Lim 2012; Lotan 2011;). At the same time, as digital media communication increasingly involves masses of users, ‘national’ political issues and relations, more frequently than in the past, play a key role in online contention. Given the ways in which the topology and composition of relations of publicness are constantly redrawn across the local, national, and transnational, the notion of a ‘sphere’ as a ‘natural’ arena or container of these relations becomes problematic (Poell & Van Dijck 2016). 

Second, the ‘spaces’ of contentious politics are now located in a complex hybrid media system (Chadwick, 2013), which includes digital platforms, but also broadcast media and face-to-face communication. The interconnections and overlaps between communication technologies change the dynamics and spatial trajectories of public contention. This shift especially requires greater attention to the technological infrastructures of mediation (Kavada 2014; Langlois et al. 2009; Milan 2015; Poell 2014). While public sphere theorists have critically examined the political-economic and socio-cultural character of media systems, relatively little attention has been paid to how media technologies not only enable but also shape publicness. In the emerging hybrid media system, publicness is articulated in very different material settings, which are organized on the basis of different technological mechanisms. There are significant differences in this respect between national and transnational broadcast media, global digital platforms, and local face-to-face interactions. Yet, in contemporary public contention they become deeply intertwined. Hence, the challenge is to explore and analyze how different technological mechanisms, socio-cultural norms, and political economic practices reinforce, undermine, or transform each other. 

Third, the central role of digital media in contemporary activism means that protest communication increasingly occurs through hyper-commercial platforms, which shape how this communication unfolds. Deploying techniques such as data mining, user profiling, and targeted advertising, online platforms constitute spaces with specific characteristics that affect how people connect with each other (Fuchs 2011; Gillespie 2014; Kavada 2012 and 2015; Poell et al. 2015). Despite their fundamentally commercial character, these platforms are of vital importance for the rapid and widespread mobilization and communication of protest. This intense use of social media in public contestation, often in combination with alternative media, further confuses the traditional distinction between ‘public’ and ‘commercial’ space, which has been central to the different strands of public sphere theory (Couldry 2015; Papacharissi, 2010; Poell & Van Dijck 2016). 

These three shifts in the spatiality of public contention challenge current systems of governance, in both democratic and authoritarian regimes. As trajectories of publicness fluidly traverse the ‘local’, ‘national’, ‘regional’ and ‘global’, the online and offline, as well as the public and private, political systems designed on the basis of the nation state find it more difficult to contain and to respond to such contentious activity. Thus, in the light of the rise of digital media, it becomes pertinent to simultaneously rethink the spatiality of public contention and of current systems of governance. 

Taking up this challenge, this workshop aims to develop a more dynamic conception of the spatiality of public contention. It traces the processes and trajectories through which the relations between contentious actors and governing institutions are shaped and reshaped. Rather than simply situating public contention within a specific ‘sphere’ that serves as the container of contentious politics, we are interested in examining how it unfolds across different geographical, social, cultural, and material configurations. More specifically, the papers in this workshop will focus on the following questions:

  • How do we need to conceptualize public contention in the new communication environment, centrally involving social platforms? Do we need to revise or even abandon dominant conceptualizations of publicness, like the public sphere model, which are very much predicated on the nation state? And if so, how? 
  • What are the spatial characteristics of current episodes of public contention? Does the communication on contentious politics move fluidly between different geographical settings, media contexts, private, public, and commercial divides, and online and offline relations? What are the new limitations and obstacles, as well as new opportunities, that digital platforms introduce in processes of contentious politics? 
  • What are the challenges posed by global, digitally mediated, processes of popular contention to existing political institutions, most of which are still grounded on national sovereignty? How can these challenges be addressed in a democratic fashion? 
  • How can the spatial reconfiguration of public contention and related processes of governance be studied? Can we capture and analyze the role of social platforms in these fluid processes? And what kinds of methods, such as digital methods and digital ethnography, are most appropriate for this?

Published by  Amsterdam Centre for Globalisation Studies