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The myth of ‘us’: digital networks, political change and the production of collectivity

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This article examines critically the claims that digital networks (digital media infrastructures, especially social media platforms) fundamentally change the conditions of politics over the longer term. Without doubt digital networks enable faster political mobilization, accelerated cycles of action, and some new forms of collectivity, but how consequential is this in the longer term when set alongside other longer term consequences of a digitally saturated environment? The author argues that some leading accounts of digital media's contributions to political change operate with a thin account of the social, the sort of thin account that historically has been supplemented by media's mythical accounts over the past century of their role in supplying social knowledge. In the digital age, even the most detailed and rigorous accounts of digital networks' contributions to political action (Bennett & Segerberg, 2012, 2013) fail to show that those networks also facilitate longer term political action that builds longer term political transformations: arguably, the resulting acceleration of action encourages short-term loyalties and less stability in political socialization. However, this limitation of existing accounts tends to be masked by a new myth for the age of digital networks: the myth of ‘us’, which encourages us to believe that our gatherings on social media platforms are a natural form of expressive collectivity, even though it is exactly that belief that is at the basis of such platforms' creation of economic value. The article deconstructs that myth, as the starting point for more satisfactory future accounts of digital networks' possible contributions to political change.
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Keywords: digital networks; myth; political change; social media; social movements; time

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Media and Communications, London School of Economics and Political Science, Houghton Street, London, WC2A 2AE, UK

Publication date: June 3, 2015

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