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Democracy in an age of viral reality (1)

October 3, 2011

From Postill, J. forthcoming. Democracy in an age of viral reality: a media epidemiography of Spain’s indignados movement. Submitted in September 2011 to special issue “Media Ethnography and Public Sphere Engagement”, eds. Debra Vidali and Thomas Tufte, Ethnography journal (NB. This is work in progress).

22 Dec 2011 update: accepted for publication pending minor revisions.

Reports of recent episodes of social unrest and protest in cities across the Arab world, Europe and other world regions have often pointed at their ‘viral’ nature and speculated on the role played by digital media in their explosive growth (e.g. Almiraat 2011, Cohen 2011). The sociologist Zeynep Tufekci (2011a, 2011b) has described the new media landscape in the Arab world as ‘a game-changer’. The combination of a politicised pan-Arab TV network (Al Jazeera), widely available mobile phones with photo and video capabilities, and the rapid growth of  social media such as Facebook and YouTube since 2009, has created a ‘new media ecology’ that authoritarian regimes are finding very difficult to control. Using an epidemiological idiom, Tufekci argues that until recently repressive governments had been able to ‘quarantine’ pockets of resistance through using force selectively, preventing these local outbreaks from spreading. In other words, they were able to stifle ‘an oppositional information/action cascade’. However, with the proliferation of portable digital media, autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt were overwhelmed ‘by simultaneous and multi-channel uprisings which spread rapidly and “virally”’.

Some work in the US also suggests the growing importance of viral contents to the political process in democratic countries. Wasik (2009) has described America as a viral culture where countless amateurs experiment with sophisticated media to produce and share ‘nanostories’. This author is pessimistic about the implications for democracy, and sees the emergence of a nanopolitics around trivia that ‘go viral’ but are forgotten almost as soon as they peak. For their part Nahon et al (2011) have mapped the spread of presidential election viral videos through the US blogosphere and found important differences in the ability to set the agenda amongst different categories of blog.

These case studies raise interesting comparative questions for further research and theorisation in both democratic and authoritarian countries.  The present series of blog posts builds on existing anthropological work on cultural and media epidemiology (Boyer 2000, 2001, Postill 2005, 2006, Sperber 1996, Spitulnik 1996) and on recent fieldwork in Barcelona (Catalonia, Spain) to propose a new approach to the study of popular politics in the digital era. I call this approach ‘media epidemiography’. This is a composite of the terms ‘epidemiology’ and ‘ethnography’ that I shall use as a heuristic to explore the new techno-political terrain in which popular struggles unfold in today’s world. The series starts with a brief account of Spain’s 15-M (or indignados) movement from its start as a peaceful day of protest through its pandemic growth in subsequent days to more recent events. This is followed by a media epidemiographic sketch of the movement under four subheadings: campaign virals, viral campaigns, niche virals and sustainable virals. I argue that digital media virals in various forms have played a key role in the movement so far, with Twitter as the central site of viral propagation. I also suggest that this may signal the coming of an era in which political reality is strongly shaped by viral contents ‘shared’ by media professionals and amateurs – an age of viral reality.  I then discuss what this highly viral media ecology may entail for the future of democracy in Spain and other media-rich countries, concluding with a summary and suggestions for further research.

Next post…


Almiraat, H. 2011. Egypt: Videos Are Worth a Million Words, Global Voices, 28 January 2011,

Boyer, P. 2000.  Functional origins of religious concepts: ontological and strategic selection in evolved minds.  Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.)  6, 195-214.

Boyer, P. 2001.  Cultural inheritance tracks and cognitive predispositions: the example of religious concepts. In: Whitehouse, H. (ed.), The Debated Mind: Evolutionary Psychology versus Ethnography, Oxford/New York:  Berg.

Cohen, J. 2011. Photo Of Egyptian Saying ‘I Love Facebook’ Goes Viral,, 4 February 2011.

Nahon, Karine; Hemsley, Jeff; Walker, Shawn; and Hussain, Muzammil (2011) “Fifteen Minutes of Fame: The Power of Blogs in the Lifecycle of Viral Political Information,” Policy & Internet: Vol. 3: Iss. 1, Article 2.

Postill, J. 2005. Internet y epidemiología cultural en Malaisia: reflexiones desde la antropología cognitiva. In Ardevol, E. and J. Grau (eds) Antropología de los Media.  Seville: AA.EE.

Postill, J. 2006. Media and Nation Building: How the Iban Became Malaysian. Oxford and New York: Berghahn.

Sperber, D. 1996.  Explaining Culture: A naturalistic approach,     Oxford:  Blackwell.

Spitulnik, D. 1996. The social circulation of media discourse and the mediation of communities. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 62, 161‑187.

Tufekci 2011a Faster is Different: Brief Presentation at Theorizing the Web, 2011, Technosociology, 13 April 2011.

Tufekci 2011b New Media and the People-Powered Uprisings, Technology Review, 30 August 2011.

Wasik, B. 2009 And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture, Viking.

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