Spectators or changemakers? – Online activism from a sociological perspective

The times of activism have changed. The internet and social media have brought us a way to see and learn about suffering happening all around the world by just looking at the screens of our smartphones. Social media, especially Facebook (Yilmaz, 2017), provide us contemporary tools for activism and global connectivity. With a few movements of your thumb, you can show support for your political interests, donate money for a cause you believe in, let anyone on the internet know of your opinions, and sign online petitions.

My social media feeds are full of pleas to donate, like and share. I am following a plethora of social media accounts that are managed by non-profit organizations, activist groups, and political groups that aim to push their message to a large online audience. I show my support to these movements with likes and shares, and sometimes my online activities move offline as well – for example, I talk about the campaigns to my friends, or attend events organized by the movements.

In academia, there’s been debate on whether this form of political activism is making us more active or passive in terms of social change. A good review on this debate can be found for instance in Sezen Yilmaz’s article The Role of Social Media Activism in New Social Movements: Opportunities and Limitations from 2017, where she discusses the drawbacks and the potential of social media activism.

The sceptics, on the one hand, see social media activism inefficient or even detrimental to offline activism. The clicks demand a minimum personal effort that might just be a way to make the clicker feel good about themselves and give their social media followers an impression that they support certain movements. Some of the obstacles of social media activism are the lack of commitment, of a collective identity and of strong ties between the participants. Some scholars (e.g. Christensen, 2011) even argue that social media activism is preventing us from attending conventional forms of political action.

Enthusiasts, on the other hand, see that social media is increasing the democratization of activism. They underline that people who were previously excluded from politics now have access to channels of affecting political decision-making processes. The internet can give individuals more opportunities to express their opinions and to organize political formations across geographic or ideological frontiers. The ease of sharing content, e.g. video clips, is also considered an influential element in online activism. (Yilmaz, 2017)

Looking at my own social media activism efforts from a sociological point of view, a few questions sprang to my mind.

Am I one cog in the wheel of social media movements shaping the future of the global society? Or am I just trying to make myself feel good and look good in the eyes of my friends?

I think the answer to both of these questions is yes. Social media activism can be seen as a continuation to the expansion of individualistic values. Wellman and colleagues (2003) argue that the internet has changed how individuals and governments relate to each other. They argue that the internet has created “fragmented, partial, heavily-communicating social networks”, where individuals can connect directly with their governments without the mediation of local groups. Hence, traditional communities are breaking up, and we are moving towards networked individualism. Individualistic values, freedom of choice and independence, are at the same time encouraging us to give as much or little effort as we want and to highlight our identities in activism, but also giving us the impression that the individuals have power to influence the world.

Yilmaz comes to the conclusion that online and offline activism complete each other. This can be seen for example in a recent manifestation in France. The campaign started off with a Facebook video clip of a woman ranting against the French president Emmanuel Macron and his planned tax on fuel. The video clip was viewed more than 6 million times and ignited approximately 290,000 activists, gilets jaunes, to block roads and highways around the country on November 17th. [read more here]

Image: pexels.com

Another good example is the feminist #metoo -movement. The hashtag has generated a global wave of (mostly) women speaking out about sexual harassment and assaults, breaking a long-lasting taboo. The movement went viral in October 2017 and succeeded in showing the widespread prevalence of sexual harassment. The role of Hollywood celebrities was very important – sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein, posts from Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Lawrence and Uma Thurman, among others, attracted the attention of the world. BBC has, for example, written an article on what has changed in the ordinary lives of women because of the hashtag. [read more here]

In conclusion, social media movements have both important advantages and disadvantages in them. There are cases where social media has played a vital role in changing prevalent power structures, but without offline actions the clicks might serve more as a way to boost our egos than affecting politics.

For more information:

Yılmaz, S., 2017. The Role of Social Media Activism in New Social Movements: Opportunities and Limitations. International Journal of Social Inquiry, 10(1), pp.141–164.

Christensen, H. S. (2011). Political activities on the Internet: Slacktivism or political participation by other means?, First Monday, 16 (2), http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3336/2767

Wellman, B. et al. (2013). The Social Affordances of the Internet for Networked Individualism, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Volume 8, Issue 3. JCMC834, https://doi-org.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/10.1111/j.1083-6101.2003.tb00216.x

The cold hard truth about what we do on our personal social media accounts


Kane Faucher argues in his book Social Capital Online : alienation and accumulation (2018) that social media is an arena where we continuously make ourselves into commodities. He argues from a Marxist point of view that we are trying to accumulate friends, followers and likes and brand ourselves in order to gain social capital online. At the same time, the platforms managed by companies are making us into products – encouraging us to clearly state our consumer preferences so that our data is easily collected for marketing purposes.

Inspired by Faucher’s writings, I wanted to analyze the time I spend on social media from a Marxist perspective – how the harmless-looking clicking and picture-posting can be seen as a form of labour I am doing for the social media companies.

For instance, the curation of posts aiming to optimize the number of likes can take several minutes of one’s time every day. Applying filters can be seen as a way to sugarcoat the reality in order to make the impression that our lives are more beautiful than they are – it is a distortion of reality. Faucher calls social media actions as entrepreneurial self-promotionalism, and the branding of our identities.

From Faucher’s point of view, everything that we do online has become a commodity. Our clicks are sold to advertisers – and since the clicks constitute the online version of ourselves – we ourselves have become worker-commodities. At the same time as we engage in identity-labour (putting work into the branding of ourselves), we are treated as data that is transformed into profit.

Who then succeeds the best in the self-branding? Alice Marwick (2013) describes the inequalities that exists between our abilities to brand ourselves. In order to brand yourself, you need the resources and skills for it. A good camera, the ability to travel or to buy products that are seen as symbols of social status, as well as the free time to spend online on self-branding are examples of resources that easily create inequalities between users. Thus, social capital offline easily transforms into social capital online.

I took a look at my LinkedIn profile, my Facebook profile, my Tinder profile and my Instagram profile to analyze the amount of identity-labour I have put into them. I could easily see that by creating these carefully curated profiles, I have employed myself to engage in the branding and commodifying of myself. On LinkedIn, we brand ourselves as the perfect employees – carefully picking our words in order to seem as a desired employee for different companies, leaving out aspects of ourselves that do not fit to that image. On a quite different platform, Tinder, we similarly brand ourselves as desirable “products” in order to attract attention and gain love, intimacy, and connection. A job and a relationship are seen as assets that increase our social capital.

The likes, friends, followers, matches are providing us a numerical way of measuring our social capital. In time we have learned the rules of the likes – what kind of posts give us more acceptance and what kind of posts nobody seems to like. It is very natural to adapt our actions to be in tune with the expectations of our social groups.

In the eyes of a sociologist, the capitalist ideology seems to have gone so far into us that it now invades our self-construction. Isn’t the digitalized capitalistic economy making our, and especially teenagers, quest for identity and belonging into a marketplace?

We could even say that social media has become the new shopping mall of our age. The customized advertisements freak me out every now and then – the products are sometimes so in line with my “identity” that it would be easy to make my quick social media scroll into a shopping spree. The way social media encourages us to tag companies into our posts is also a sly way to make the users into the advertisers – exploiting our will to gain social capital.

In conclusion and based on Marxist analysis on social media research, I argue that we as citizens of the digital age, could be more aware of our positions as worker-commodities that social media has given us. By paying attention to our actions as constructors of a capitalistic self-brand and as commodities of the online market, we could free ourselves of a huge burden of identity-work and of a risk of being exploited.

For more information:

Faucher, K., 2018. Social Capital Online : alienation and accumulation, University of Westminster Press.

Przybylski, A. et al., 2013. Motivational, emotional, and behavioral correlates of fear of missing out. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(4), pp.1841–1848.

Marwick, A., 2013. Status Update : Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age, Yale University Press, ProQuest Ebook Central,  http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ed/detail.action?docID=3421330.

Images: pexels.com

My digital self, do you belong to me?

Selfies have become quite a normal way for making oneself visual online. Many of us, especially in my millennial age cohort, have already taken and shared countless selfies during our lifetimes. We haven’t perhaps fully understood that all the pictures have left an irreversible digital mark to companies like Google, Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp and Snapchat.

Image: pexels.com

Do all these pictures of me, somewhere online, belong to me at all? Do I have control over what happens to these ‘versions’ of me?

I posed myself these questions after reading a news article on an artist that made money out of Instagram pictures posted by other people. The article was published in 2015 by Huffington Post and it presented the artist Richard Prince who took screenshots of celebrities’ Instagram posts, added his own comments, printed them on canvas, and sold the pieces of art for $90,000 each. The people whose pictures were used could not sue Prince, since he edited the original pictures and the new ones thus counted as his own work. [read more here]

Then another Instagram news story grabbed my attention. A woman took part in the Finnish version of the reality TV game show The Apprentice, and the tabloids presented the contestant with headlines roughly translated to English as “Sexy Apprentice contestant poses in topless social media pictures”. The reporters had used her Instagram pictures in their news articles, drawing attention to her physical appearances. The contestant, however, “fought back”, and posted on her social media a critique towards the journalists, accusing them of sexism and blaming them for an incredible amount of sexual harassment messages she received in her inbox and comment sections after the media coverage.

These two cases can be seen as examples of the self and its ownership being reconstituted in the age of social media.

In sociology, Erwing Goffman’s (1959) concepts of performance and the audience can be used to make sense of our actions on social media. We share content in order to create online versions of ourselves, keeping our audience – the people who are watching us via their screens – in mind. Many scholars have called social media activities and posts performances, where individuals attempt to create a certain impression of themselves to their friends and followers.

Bernie Hogan (2010), however, names social media posts as exhibitions, describing that online content can easily be taken out of context and become an artifact. In this sense, the two examples of social media posts can be seen as social media artifacts: they ended up being used in other contexts than the original intention was. When these people shared their pictures on Instagram, they probably did not expect that their faces would be used as ways to make money – either in forms of contemporary art or on the covers of magazines to increase the paper’s revenue. In other words, their online attempts of self-expression turned into artifacts that were used as means to make money for people they did not know.

One of the extreme forms of the circulating artifacts can be seen in the relationship between social media and the most famous celebrities. Content shared by e.g. the Kardashian family or Donald Trump are made into memes, shared on various platforms with sometimes malicious purposes, and their lives and intentions are constantly speculated and judged in comment sections. The online artifacts of celebrities become a way for some to amuse themselves, and for others a way to make money.

Image: Reddit. Time it takes to read terms and conditions Instagram: 86 minutes

Do we, as users of social media, understand that we have become tools, shareable content, and products? And is this perhaps changing the relationship we have with ourselves?

In order to use Instagram, we need to agree to, for example, that the company can monitor all of the activities we perform on the app (e.g. screen time, clicks, locations), and that the content we share can be distributed, modified, copied, and publicly displayed. What this implies, is that millions of people have given the right for this company and third parties to use pictures of themselves in quite unpredictable ways. I do not control what is done with the representations of myself that I have willingly shared. Someone could potentially use my pictures and paint a picture of me that I find completely false, which has happened to many to their dismay.

To come back to my initial question of ownership of the representations of me, I argue that we have given up a part of our agency by sharing pictures of us online. The artifacts, that we often conceive as parts of us or belonging to us, can be manipulated and used in ways we might not imagine. When we accept the terms and conditions of a social media application and create artifacts of ourselves, we should be aware of the fact that the power we have over the representations of ourselves can shift to the hands of others. In addition, we are giving up our privacy if we are not constantly aware of the recording of our every action.

Image: https://worldwideinterweb.com/funniest-celebrity-memes-ever/

For more information:

 Finnish The Apprentice contestant on tabloids (text in Finnish) https://www.seiska.fi/Uutiset/Varjele-saamelainen-Diili-kilpailijakaunotar-yllattaa-rohkeilla-kuvilla-Poseeraa-somessa

Goffman, E. 1959. The presentation of self in everyday life. Anchor: New York.

Hogan, B., 2010. The Presentation of Self in the Age of Social Media: Distinguishing Performances

and Exhibitions Online. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 30(6), pp.377–386.