In October, 2011, an army of people dressed as Zombies,many of them from Zombiecon, a horror fan convention joined the protesters in Washington Square Park, then the home base for Occupy Wall Street, standing in for corporate zombies that were sucking the lifeblood of the 99 percent. Seniors, not to mention the zombies themselves and other protesters, were texting, tweeting, and sending photos or videos: passing the word was the point. This is what democracy looks like in the 21 century, where a more playful style of activism is emerging; one that owes much to fan culture.
Much like Occupy, Ferguson and subsequent protests against racialized police violence have generated new political symbols, tactics, and frames. New gestures such as “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot” and the choking “I can’t breathe” imagery associated with the death of Eric Garner, tapped into public frustration and rage. These and many of today’s grassroots organizations believe that the most effective way to put pressure on the government is through the exercise of expressive and discursive power—through education and cultural change—rather than electoral or institutional politics.
By Any Media Necessary addresses a central paradox between a decay of public trust in core institutions on one hand and an expansion of the communicative and organizational resources available to everyday people on the other, where grassroots media are being deployed as a tool to challenge the failed mechanisms of institutional politics. Instead of seeing a decline in youth participation, often viewed as emblematic of the crisis in democracy, we now see youth pursuing politics through other means than the ones traditionally associated with movements and formal organizations. Hence, this chapter is an invitation for readers to rethink what counts as politics, where there are signs of political, social and cultural changes occurring around the edges of dominant political institutions.
Across this opening chapter, we introduce five foundational concepts that will inform the case study chapters that follow.
- Politics of Circulation. The roots of contemporary protest movements such as Occupy can be traced to the 1960’s counter culture, however, tactics have shifted from disrupting the signals or culture jamming to a politics of circulation in which activist groups surf media flows. Instead of sabotaging symbols of popular culture, they capitalize on their power as a shared resource to reach wider audiences. Though many activists still employ traditional ways of protesting and occupying spaces, they do so using networked practices, where participants find each other online; they use social media to facilitate their planning or to share techniques with other collectives; and they capture and transmit photographs of their work. We also discuss through contemporary examples how political storytelling can be a strong contribution to a long political process, where the co-creation of shared identities and mythologies can help cement bonding within a movement as well as enhance bridging to potential supporters.
- Transmedia Mobilization. Unlike recent accounts of protest movements which have primarily focused on the political effects of singular platforms, we envision a transmedia mobilization (Costanza-Chock, 2010) in which young activists share assets, and deploy any and all available media channels and platforms to get their message across, “By Any Media Necessary”. Whereas traditional activism seeks to unify the message, transmedia activists seek to diversify both the message and channel, where communication is not only about content creation, but aggregation, curation and remix.
- Civic Imagination is the capacity to imagine alternatives to current social, political or economic institutions or problems. What distinguishes this concept of civic imagination from other concepts of political and public imagination is that it is a cross over from imagining the abstract to imagining things that have not yet been experienced; it is less structured and more fluid. Hence, the first step towards changing how we perceive and treat each other would be to develop in oneself the ability to imagine democracy.
- From Participatory Culture to Participatory Politics. Today’s participatory culture is the product of decades of struggle not a natural outgrowth of technological changes. Therefore, our focus is not on new technologies per se, but on the possibilities (real and imagined) that we might use these tools to achieve greater political power and the way that cultural practices are being deployed towards explicit political ends. Today’s grassroots movements acquire control through means of cultural production and circulation. This chapter situates the term participatory politics amid a flow of views about what constitutes politics emphasizing that it is an aspiration as much as it is a reality. This is all discussed while acknowledging the extant structural inequalities, where despite the fact that new platforms do enable new forms of collective action, they do not always guarantee the inculcation of democratic values or the adoption of a progressive agenda.
- Connected Learning. Through the concept of connected learning, civic organizations can help their young learners move swiftly into forms of social and political engagement by connecting the political realm to other activities they care about.
The discussion and the examples advanced in this chapter all drive us to envision a shift in the way democracy in the 21st century is being practiced and imagined by both American youth and movements.