Daniel Jackson, Bournemouth University, Scott Wright, University of Melbourne and Todd Graham, University of Groningen
Creating public spaces that foster political talk amongst citizens is challenging business. Tell people that it’s a ‘political’ space and (however well designed) you will invariably find it is used by political junkies, and is largely ignored by those who don’t self-identify as ‘political’. Consequently, many commentators will observe said disengagement by the majority of citizens, and complain of political apathy.
But what if we are looking for the wrong things, and in the wrong places? In our recent work, we have been arguing that a) we need to move beyond the now well studied formally ‘political’ spaces, and see what is going on in everyday lifestyle communities, and b) we need to reconceive political talk as less narrow, less normative and rational, and instead embrace the vernacular, expressive and porous characteristics of everyday public speech.
And of course, emotions are an important link to both of these issues. If we accept the public sphere is becoming more emotionalised, then we can begin to conceive the nature of political engagement itself, as well as the spaces in which we look for it.
In this spirit, for about the last four years, we have been examining political talk in non-political online forums: how it emerges, what happens when it does emerge, and what we can learn about issues of technology, community, political engagement and citizenship. We set our focus outside of political flashpoints such as elections, protests or social movements, and instead root our analysis in the everyday. Our empirical focus has been on three popular, general interest UK-based forums: www.netmums.com, www.digitalspy.com and www.moneysavingexpert.com. These websites cover salient aspects of contemporary culture: consumption, media and family. But first and foremost they are spaces embedded in everyday life where people come to share personal experiences and dilemmas, discuss their interests, meet likeminded people, and have fun.
At this point we would like to share with you a minor revelation that our study revealed. Across the three forums, over 50% of all discussions that were political at some point led to political action. Further details about the design of the study, what types of political actions we found, and who they were directed at can be found in our journal articles. In the remainder of this article, we want to reflect on some of the fundamental questions our study provoked: what is it about these spaces that seemed to foster political action, and secondly, why was one of the forums (DigitalSpy) the exception, with little political action emerging from everyday talk?
In our article in Information, Communication and Society, we develop this argument further, but here we offer three ruminations on how the characteristics of the online platform/ community shape political talk and mobilisation, with particular focus on the role of emotion therein.
1.The connection to everyday life and the personal/ emotional nature of talk;
Part of the value of examining third spaces lies in their everyday nature as a crucible of negotiation between the public and private, the political and personal. Here, we found MoneySavingExpert (MSE) and Netmums to be productive spaces for turning personal problems into political action. When political talk arose in these spaces, it very often was deeply connected to participants’ personal lives. Consequently, emotion is welcomed, and talk was frequently emotional in tone. We found that emotion can facilitate connections between people that lead to all kinds of actions – in both private lives and public.
In MSE and Netmums, people also felt connected because their subject matter was the self, not politics, therefore removing or side-stepping one of the barriers to engagement for many contemporary citizens. In contrast, for DigitalSpy (DS) the entry point for conversations was what is in the news or on TV, hence there was immediately a greater distance between participants and the subject matter. This mattered when politics emerged because in DS it was framed as something to talk about but too distant to influence, whereas in MSE and Netmums it was framed as something that was close to home, affecting forum members, and something they could mobilize around.
Take this example of a Netmums thread, where participants shared experiences of Job Centre staff. It was prompted by one person who was treated particularly poorly by a member of staff, and felt so ‘upset’ that she felt the need to share it with others. Read through the thread and you will see emotion running through it, often through the use of emoticons. You will also see how other forum participants begin to mobilize around the sharing of stories, which are then presented to those in power.
Poster 1: I have also had really bad experiences with the Job Centre and found going there no point at all. It didn’t help me to find work at all, it was just a big waste of time. I ended up crying at one appointment as they made me feel that bad … I feel so strongly about this I wish that I knew how to voice my opinions
Poster 2: I’m thinking of setting up a website/facebook page so that people can voice their opinions and relate their experience of the staff at Job Centres.
Poster 3: OK….I’ll do it!
I hope you will all come on and tell these same stories when it’s set up? I intend to contact MPs etc. with details of them to prove how poorly the JCs are performing.
2. A culture (and structure) of help and support
Both MSE and Netmums are communities organized around self-help, where the emphasis is on goal-oriented discussions to help members with their particular dilemmas. When you look at the culture of the forums, people are there to listen, to help or to tell their stories and receive support from others. Contrastingly, in DigitalSpy – and most other political forums we would argue – people are there mainly to discuss. MSE and Netmums participants were there, for the most part, with the intention of taking action, namely personal actions in their everyday lives – to save money, be a better parent and so on. This action orientated mind-set, along with the everyday and personal nature of the forums, we argue, helped facilitate political action.
This mind-set comes from the top. Both Netmums and MSE make clear that they have a civic role, amongst their other functions. The purpose of DigitalSpy is far less goal-oriented. It is about ‘news and conversation about entertainment, technology and the media’: in essence, a talking shop.
In the sociological literature, the political mobilization that emerges from self-help groups has typically been positioned within the broader shift towards lifestyle and identity politics. Hence, they can be framed as contributing towards a retreat from civic life as people focus increasingly on their own narrow concerns; or alternatively as an empowering democratic force, through providing spaces for reflection on the reality of current politics, with an emphasis on questions of identity, experience and storytelling rather than the broad redistributive questions that had concerned previous generations. An interesting empirical observation from our study is how the forums performed both roles, with many discussions leading to personal actions that were not for societal benefit, alongside the finding that the forums facilitated all sorts of manifest and latent forms of political participation in aid of the common good, with many of these actions emerging as a result of the personal actions. Thus we would argue that an increase in personal empowerment that comes through self-help can have civic repercussions, such as heightening awareness of the broader social forces that impinge on people as individuals, increasing social capital and encouraging forms of political participation.
3. The interactive and reciprocal nature of the platforms and communities;
The third factor was the interactive and reciprocal nature of both the platform and communities. Much has been said about the interactive and networking affordances of (new) social media such as Twitter and Facebook. However, unlike many new social media, discussion forums seem to be conducive to reciprocity: discursive reciprocal exchange. They allow people the time to read and reply to each other’s posts. The threading of discussions (and public access) also makes it easy for participants to follow discussions and interact with one another. These affordances along with the personal connection and culture of support seemed to foster meaningful reciprocal and reflexive exchanges, allowing relationships, and a sense of community, to develop and prosper. Indeed, in Netmums and MSE, participants often shared very personal details, experiences and stories with one another. These intimate and personal-based communicative practices seemed to be conducive to affective subject-position taking. That is, these online communities opened up spaces of personal and emotional relationships through which participants forged affective bonds that allowed for deeper levels of understanding, thus fostering a sense of belonging. Such connections, we argue, made participants more receptive to taking political actions or mobilizing around them.
What we are essentially arguing here, is that there is a relationship between technological affordances, emotionality, self-help and political action (not excluding the other ingredients we have discussed here and in our other work). As other contributions to this volume document, emotion can play a very positive role in facilitating political action, but as this and our previous studies have documented, you need the right kind of platform or culture where emotion is welcomed. And here, it might just be that spaces rooted in the everyday, rather than the ‘political’, are more productive than we might have imagined.
Daniel Jackson is Associate Professor in Media and Communication at Bournemouth University. His research broadly explores the intersection of media and democracy, including news coverage of politics, the construction of news, political communication, and political talk in online environments. Daniel is co-convenor of the Political Studies Association Media and Politics Group.
Scott Wright is Senior Lecturer in Political Communication at the University of Melbourne, Australia.
Todd Graham is Assistant Professor in Journalism and Political Communication at the Groningen Centre for Media and Journalism Studies, University of Groningen. His main research interests are the use of new media in representative democracies, the intersections between popular culture and formal politics, online election campaigns, online deliberation and political talk, and online civic engagement.