Guest Author: Jeremy Mohler
Instead of asking how Millennials are reshaping the U.S. political landscape, I’ll use this bit of digital real estate to invert that question: how is the U.S. political landscape shaping Millennials? And since all politics are economic, and all economics political, I’ll rephrase: how does the political economy of dominant social media shape the political engagement of folks in their twenties and thirties?
To sketch a brief answer, let’s be precise about a couple categories that tend towards abstraction in this sort of broad discussion. ‘Politics’ for my purposes is not only electoral politics in representative democracies but more specifically distributions of power and the means of changing those distributions. Politics is more than the act of voting every two or four years in national elections; it’s a substance that mediates all social relations all of the time. If we start by placing Millennials at one end and corporate-funded political campaigns at the other, we disrespect the powerful politics that fall outside of that extremely one-sided relationship. Struggles and resistance within the circuits of gender, race, sexuality, and class are always raging underneath the established discourse. All the Big Data in the universe about perceptions of Hillary Clinton’s certain presidential run won’t tell us more about our moment’s gender politics than listening to all women about their struggles and resistance.
‘Social media’ is, of course, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and so on, i.e., centralized platforms funded by speculative capital. We must recognize that the mode of production for these dominant Web 2.0 platforms is advertising; that because of capitalism’s market imperative, gathering more and more data about users to sell to advertisers is the principal ambition of these companies; and that this doesn’t have to be the case. The egalitarian seeds of the Internet were sewn by universities, researchers, and the military; commercial use wasn’t allowed online until the early 1990s. But two decades later, as we still tout the utopian interconnectivity of the web’s early days, capitalism’s logic is enclosing digital space as it once did the English countryside.
Consider Twitter: what makes it so special—that the timeline is public, real-time, and content neutral—is in the crosshairs as the corporation that owns it struggles to manufacture profit for investors. The progressive logic of the publicallyfunded Internet’s content-neutral backbone has so far outrun the reactionary forces of capitalist speculation. But CEO Dick Costolo thinks that each user comes to Twitter with “very specific interest and intent we believe we can monetize.”[i] The company is slowly rolling out algorithms to separate what tweets they deem ‘interesting’ and ‘timely’ from the drone of real-time babbling. Tweets from users that we don’t follow are showing up in our timelines. Facebook, which wields algorithmic manipulation on our very psychic well being[ii], is Twitter projected into the future.
When protests began in Ferguson, my Twitter feed filled with real-time news from the street and independent journalists I trust. How distorted would my feelings of solidarity and compassion have been if I had sifted through ads for The Economist and Budweiser? Or if CNN’s coverage was deemed more ‘interesting’ and ‘timely’ because they could afford to promote their tweets? Would I have been as compelled as I have been since to connect Ferguson to the racism flowing through the streets of my city?
But social media can and should be progressive. The interconnectivity of existing social media derives as much from the Internet’s original peer-to-peer structure than any original idea or invention, and is unquestionably allowing politics to flow away from worn and tired elections towards the everyday reproduction of society. Just as political campaigns—if we’re going to take them seriously—should be publically funded, what are becoming the dominant means of communication should be under democratic control. The Market is not God: city-funded broadband networks in Chattanooga, TN, and Bristol, VA, are outperforming at a cheaper price those in DC, NYC, and LA, where monopoly providers like Verizon and Comcast reign supreme[iii].
Unless we acknowledge and repeat over and over again that there are alternatives to the politics and social media that we’ve been handed by the powers that be, we won’t have the collective capacity to counter those powers, and our political engagement will continue to be shaped more than we shape it. The overpowering material network of capitalist, white, and male privilege is slowly being reified in our digital networks. The technology of political life’s production is not neutral and should be cast in the shape of the social relations we all say we want to live within.
[i] Holmes, D. (2014, October 28). What does Twitter CEO Dick Costolo know that Wall Street doesn’t. Pando Daily. Retrieved from http://pando.com/2014/10/28/what-does-twitter-ceo-dick-costolo-know-that-wall-street-doesnt/
[ii] Holmes, D. (2014, June 28). Facebook’s science experiment on users shows the company is even more powerful and unethical than we thought. Pando Daily. Retrieved from http://pando.com/2014/06/28/facebooks-science-experiment-on-users-shows-the-company-is-more-even-powerful-and-unethical-than-we-thought/
[iii] Cain Miller, Claire. (2014, October 30). Why the U.S. Has Fallen Behind in Internet Speed and Affordability. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/31/upshot/why-the-us-has-fallen-behind-in-internet-speed-and-affordability.html?rref=upshot&smid=tw-upshotnyt&_r=0&abt=0002&abg=1
Jeremy Mohler is a writer and student in Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture & Technology (CCT) program, studying the political economy of digital and cultural production. His writing, along with an ongoing blog, is accessible at www.futuredebris.com.