Course: 2010

Cyberspace Ethnography:

Political Activism and the Internet

Dr. Maximilian C. Forte, Concordia University, Winter 2010

#griots  ———  #pman  ———  #iranelection  ——— #g20

With marked prominence since the Greek riots of December 2008, to the so-called “Twitter Revolutions” in Moldova and Iran, to promoting the campaigns of anti-globalization activists protesting at G20 gatherings, the mainstream mass media regularly tell us that Twitter (and of course Facebook, YouTube, and blogs), have been central. In some cases, the mainstream news media even use Twitter to source their “information” on certain political upheavals, raising challenging questions about the relationships between mass media and new media, between state and civil society, between governance and the perceived agency of digital activism.

The mainstream media’s privileged position of broadcast centrality in the control and direction of information has been, some might still argue, significantly eroded by the emergence of new media technologies, of many-to-many communication and narrow-casting. If the printing press enabled or determined the creation and institution of nationalism, of the nation as an imagined community, then it is possible that the Internet, and specifically social media, are helping to bolster if not create new social movements and empowering diverse sections of civil society in their struggles against the state, against governments and corporations, and even against each other. We thus witness a range of concerns in the literature on politics and power in/via the Internet, ranging from new utopian conceptualizations of a cyber democracy, to critiques of balkanization and fragmented associations, to serious worries that social media are the best state surveillance tool yet, permitting heightened policing of citizens, or even crowd sourcing intelligence for the cause of national security. Anyone can use social media to organize causes and project political messages, including states and their military and intelligence agencies – witness the techniques of “soft power” and “genetically modified social movements.”

This seminar focuses on manifestations and extensions of political activism that use the Web. In particular, we are dealing with political movements, causes, and campaigns that exist in the physical world, but that also rely on use of Internet-based social network media to advance their political projects, raise consciousness, and build their support base. Our approach is both historical and contemporary, both through readings and our ethnographic analyses in this course. (In terms of the course coordinator’s teaching and research specializations, this seminar was conceptualized as an extension of Political Anthropology combined with elements of the triad of courses he teaches in media: Visual Anthropology, Media Ethnographies, and Cyberspace.)

Twitter is the primary gateway and research site for this course. This is for the following reasons:

  1. Twitter is the “newest and hottest” thing in the political buzz surrounding various political movements and campaigns (for example, the so-called “Twitter revolutions” of Moldova and Iran, or the Obama electoral campaign) and is regularly featured prominently in the mainstream media in connection with politics;
  2. Twitter serves as a useful gateway to the websites of various political causes almost all of which feel the need to maintain a Twitter presence;
  3. Twitter, specifically via the “tweets” of its users, leaks into blogs, Facebook groups, Flickr, and YouTube, but places these within the context of actual interactions and exchanges between political activists who are Twitter users.
  4. Twitter presumably allows us to witness how political activists produce and shape messages, distribute them, and consume information and ideas, in interaction with others.



Readings for this course are drawn from the two books below (available for purchase in the Concordia Bookstore), and from articles accessible via the Web (see the links from the schedule of readings).

Link: Course Book Order Page in Concordia Bookstore

The Power of Organizing without Organizations
Clay Shirky
London: Penguin, 2008




Online Activism in Theory and Practice
Edited by
Martha McCaughey & Michael D. Ayers
London: Routledge, 2003




Download a copy of the complete course syllabus (PDF)

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Winter Semester, 2010
03 credits
12 January – 06 April, 2010
Meeting days and times:
Tuesdays: 2:45pm—5:30pm
Campus: SGW, Room: MB- S1.255