Tonight I delivered a brief talk at the Midland’s arts centre. Below is a transcript of my talk (minus my live rambles and tangents and including some typos – sorry). Also speaking were Jon Bounds & Pete Ashton.

Firstly an apology: as an academic I can’t take a title at face value. I find I need to hand wring and worry about the terms of a debate before I can do anything at all. And then once I have problematised the issue, I find that the title is wrong and I start using different words.

As a media and cultural studies academic who has been criticised by the Daily Mail for wasting tax payers money running courses on social media, this condition is particularly acute. I need to be seen to have thought too much about things to justify myself. So that being the case, I struggled to get into this topic and felt I had to change it. I hope you don’t all rush to get your money back, but stay with me for a moment. The new title is:

Social Media & Glocalisation

Social media seems to lend itself more to the idea of “glocalisation”, and this is perhaps a more interesting way of thinking about what social media means to Birmingham. Glocalisation isn’t an awful neologism that I’ve just made up – it’s a term that has some currency within academia, and it’s a strand of thought that you might want to follow up. I will briefly outline globalisation, how technology is associated with it, and then use this to a frame some ideas about social media and glocalisation.

Globalisation

Globalisation is a big idea (excuse the pun), or rather a big set of ideas and discourses. It can be seen positively as a system of changes that improves life chances for all, or it can be seen negatively as a force that offers greater liberty to some (conventionally Westerners) at the expense of others (the developing world). It’s a process of integrating global economies, societies and cultures.

We often find it manifest in scenes such as this which offer a cultural mash up of signs:

 

(image CC geographyalltheway_photos)

this image essentially relies on us reading the building as indexical of the “developing” world” while the three brightly coloured branded boards affixed to the building are understood as “western”. The contrast between these signs, the tension we feel between the developed and the developing, is the space where we find “globalisation”. This sort of image is actually a visual cliché: search for images of globalisation and images that rely upon this contrast of developed and developing signs are very common.

Communications technology is generally considered to play a big part in the modern era of globalisation, facilitating it at a number of levels: the computer networks that allow world markets to coordinate quickly and allow money to move from place to place; the phone networks and email systems that link branches of multi-national organisations and allow information to flow readily; the distribution technologies that allow news and coverage of events to arrive in our homes within seconds or cultural artefacts such as TV and film to be replicated and distributed to us. Techno-utopians often take up Marshall McLuhan’s idea of the “global village” as a metaphor which describes the process of globalisation: the suggestion here is that technology removes physical barriers and allows us to work at far remove from our colleagues. Thomas Friedman, in “The World is Flat” extends upon this idea to describe ten “flatteners” – forces of change that drive globalisation – that are heavily reliant upon computers and the Internet.

Social Media

Social media is a broad term which you can more or less interchange with Web 2.0 – it describes a set of technologies and services that make self-publishing online very easy, and which often allow the consumers of such media to interact, most commonly through comments of some sort. I tend to use the term very broadly to encompass blogs and social networks and within that I would include services you may know such as: Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, YouTube, MySpace etc. These services all sit on top of the networks which I have described and are often seen as a step towards democratising access to media production and publishing.

The reach of these tools is global, but not usage is not universal. Access is restricted by the availability and viability of communications infrastructure, personal devices – i.e. phones and computers, skills and of course the inclination to actually take part in social media activity. Furthermore, from country to country, participation in certain networks and activities follows a different profile, as this infographic attempts to show. This is further complicated by regulation, for example it is well documented that China blocks access to a number of international services such as Facebook. Nonetheless, the structure of the connections between people and the interlinking of platforms affords us a meta-level network of networks with a global reach.

So far I have described a global network which offers the opportunity for citizens from across the world to speak to one another, to share stories, across Friedman’s flat world, as if they were neighbours in McLuhan’s global village. And what do we do with this opportunity for global communication?

Very often we talk about ourselves, our friends, our city, what we are doing, where we are going. This tweet is actually fairly typical. It’s ordinary, but it’s very real. Undoubtedly social media does operate globally and can involve people from over here with events over there. For example, social media was widely reported as being an important channel in delivering information to mainstream media during the Iran election protests. Similarly news of natural disasters, plane crashes, and other extraordinary events are often broken via social media. I’m not going to deny this process but I am going to suggest that these are exceptions. Mostly, to borrow from Raymond Williams, in social media “culture is ordinary”.

Glocalisation

It is tempting when we consider social media to suggest that, because the networks they create are not bounded by space, they are bringing about ever more urgent globalisation. Yet to do so seems to me to be overly deterministic. Technology doesn’t determine its own outcomes, these are negotiated. For most of us our use of social media is very local, either to a place or a known community. We are turning the structures of globalisation back upon themselves, and using them in ways that serve local needs primarily. This is not globalisation but glocalisation.

Examples:

  • Hyperlocal blogs e.g. digbeth.org. Here the potential for global reach is turned inward – telling a story to the local community. Sometimes the stories become national or international as happened at the Bournville blog;
  • Localised versions of global internet memes e.g. lolitics;
  • Meet ups that are organised through social networks, e.g. Birmingham Social Media Café, and Likemind – which is actually governed globally but run locally (hat tip to Pete Ashton for comparing Likemind to other networks such as Freecycle which have global governance);
  • Co-working spaces such as Moseley Exchange which rely on email and social networks to organise activity between physical meetings (see Hampton & Wellman for more on this).

Birmingham Centre For Media And Cultural Research

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