“Epidemiography”… Say What?

Sociologists have long been familiar with metaphors, analogies, and theories imported to the social realm from the natural sciences. One of our founders Durkheim viewed society as a living “social organism.”

Fast forward to 2011 where the proliferation of new communications technologies such as Twitter have once again spawned (pardon my biological lingo) new comparisons with the biological realm.

In his recent blog post, Anthropologist John Postill expounds upon some of the basic ideas of his new book Democracy in the age of viral reality: a media epidemiography of Spain’s indignados movement, which we may find applicable to the socially networked social movements/protests/revolts/revolutions happening around the world.

Many of us have already become familiar with the term “viral” when referring to the way comic and political videos quickly become popular on youtube. But Postill applies this analogy to social protests, believing that social media have been a game changer that created a “new media ecology” that foments “outbreaks” of this virus of opposition that regimes in the Arab world and even governments in the developed world have found difficult to “quarantine.”

Contrast this media ecology view with the more material perspective of the Latin American intellectual and journalist Raúl Zibechi who was quoted here as saying:

I don’t believe in virtual spaces, spaces are always material as well as symbolic. It’s another matter to speak of virtual media of communication among people in movement….

This raises the question of the material cost of protest and whether online social media actually constitute a “space” for protest, or rather are simply the latest tool in a long line of printing presses, telegraph machines, telephones, radios, fax machines, cassette tapes, satellite television, and other media used to spread messages of dissent and mobilize protesters and revolutionaries.

Ithiel de Sola Pool seemed to lean more toward the latter in his famous book, Technologies of Freedom.

Is becoming a facebook fan of a protest page anything other than simply a convenient barometer for public sentiment? Is it a viral outbreak of resistance that must be “quarantined”, or is armchair revolution simply not revolution?

In the Egyptian protests last January, Mohammed Bamyeh notes here that some of the most critical moments that led to the downfall of Hosni Mubarak came during the period when the government had actually shut down all internet in the country, and protesters used more traditional means to organize and still were able to have millions protesting around the country.

Contrast this with the “viral” Occupy Wall Street movement, which uses the slogan “We are the 99%”, but is only able to get a thousand or so at a time to show up, even with the full force of social media, the organization of volunteers providing food, and the attraction of performers coming to put on concerts for the protesters.

In the end of the day, is the difference between Tahrir Square and Zucotti Park, even after more than 40 years of authoritarian rule in Egypt, more about family, neighborhood and community than it is about technology? Is it possible to organize a mass social movement in a society that is “bowling alone”?

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