December 10: 12pm, Joel Penney, “Light Politics” or the Tradeoffs of the Citizen Marketing Approach to Political Activism

Presenter: Joel N. Penney

Time: Wednesday, December 10, 2014, 12pm – 1:30pm

Location: Room 1631, Hunter West, Hunter College, 695 Park Ave., New York, NY 10065


This talk will present conclusions drawn from over five years of empirical research on the phenomenon of citizen marketing, a term that describes how everyday citizens circulate persuasive political media content via peer-to-peer networks in the hopes of advancing their interests and shaping the public mind. The term citizen marketer—a play on the closely-related concept of the citizen consumer—is an attempt to capture this emergent set of practices and corresponding logics. The project’s primary point of departure is to consider the long-term growth of these practices, intensified (but by no means originated) by the popularization of digital social sharing platforms like Facebook and Twitter, as signaling an important shift in how political participation is conceptualized in the contemporary era. The research examines a variety of ways in which citizens conspicuously promote their politics to their peers, such as changing social media profile pictures to a protest symbol, strategically tweeting links to news articles to raise awareness about select issues, and participating in the spread of politically-charged memes and viral videos. In each case, a citizen marketer makes a deliberate choice to draw public attention to symbolic political content that she or he wishes to publicize in the broader marketplace of ideas. The bulk of the analysis is grounded in the first-hand testimony of over a hundred U.S. citizens who have participated in such practices, and examines case studies such as the red equal sign campaign for marriage equality, the peer-to-peer promotion of Barack Obama in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, and the use of Twitter to publicize the Occupy Wall Street movement.

In reviewing the major findings from this research, I address both the potential positive and negative consequences of these practices by introducing the concept of ‘light politics,’ a term is intended to have a double meaning. On the one hand, the political content forwarded through citizen marketing practices can be described as light, as in reductive, simplified, or lacking gravitas. For instance, it is difficult to fit much of a sustained political argument into the space of a Facebook profile picture or a 140-character tweet, or to advance an in-depth, well-rounded knowledge of the world with a few selectively-chosen bursts of digital data. On the other hand, this content can be thought of as light in the sense that it can easily and casually travel across the culture, circulating political ideas and information (however briefly sketched) into the spaces of everyday life. These two qualities are indeed interrelated, as the lightness of content allows for lightness of movement. ‘Light politics’ thus helps to capture the complementary risks and benefits of citizen marketing practices—the tradeoffs incurred when sacrificing some of the substantive depth of politically-oriented discourse in order to heighten its ability to circulate among a wider swath of the public and thus democratize the political communication process. The discussion concludes by exploring whether a growing focus on symbolic media practices pushes activism towards a Baudrillardian ‘implosion of the social,’ or rather if the political relevance of these practices can be maintained through the hermeneutic meaning-making processes of its participants.


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