Digital-magic and Power

Finding ways to articulate the flow of political and personal power online is inherently complex because it takes place across numerous contexts and at the intersection of many conceptual territories. Identity, gender, culture, class, to name a few, which then have to be considered within, or through, the lens of networks, hierarchies, communities, factions, nations, and so on.

Nevertheless, it’s crucial that we don’t let this complexity obscure the actions of those that seek power through manipulation, fear and coercion. Recently we have seen these modes of power acquisition move into the public, some would say civic, spaces of the Web. This post introduces a paper I co-wrote with Richard Reynolds which explores the visible, or surface, aspects of manipulation and control via the network. It does not deal with the undertow of algorithms and bots but with ‘magical’ modes of rhetoric which the disintermediated orality of Social Media makes effective at a scale we haven’t previously witnessed.

Last year Richard invited me to speak at his ‘Politics and Social Media’ event at Central St Martins which is part of the University of the Arts London. Richard opened the day with a talk on ‘Politics, Social Media and the Practice of Ritual Magic’ focusing on Trump’s use of Twitter and I followed by discussing ‘Trust and Digital Politics’.

There was an obvious resonance between our talks, so after the event we put together a paper combining our positions. We have struggled to find a home for this paper through traditional academic or journalistic routes as it doesn’t sit well in either camp so we humbly offer it here in its current, tidy-but-not-peer-reviewed state:

Politics, Social Media and Practical Magic_Reynolds White 

We have attempted present some of the shifting relationships between reason, belief and power in the networked era without falling into hard definitions real or fake. We are simply exploring ways of understanding the complex interplay of politics, celebrity and power as they are played-out through Social Media.

Recently I have been strolling around the fringes of the Engagement in a time of Polarization ‘pop-up MOOC’ course, facilited by Dr. Natalie Delia Deckard and Dr. Bonnie Stewart. Through this I have found some great readings, including The Problem with Facts by Tim Harford. His article is a good companion piece to our paper as also discusses the way we tend to respond to certain modes of language in a non-rational manner:

“Several studies have shown that repeating a false claim, even in the context of debunking that claim, can make it stick. The myth-busting seems to work but then our memories fade and we remember only the myth. The myth, after all, was the thing that kept being repeated. In trying to dispel the falsehood, the endless rebuttals simply make the enchantment stronger.”

I think it’s important to accept that we all respond to the mythical as some level and that, unchecked, this can lead to intolerance and polarisation. Personally, I celebrate faith-based forms of understanding, wonder and fellowship. I hope by acknowledging that I’m not especially rational I can be more conscious of the ideological and belief-based manner in which I construct my worldview.

For me, this isn’t about not holding a position, it’s about being aware of my position and respecting those that differ. Crucially, it’s also about being able to identify when you are being sold a line which allows you to negatively stoke your identity (I’m in the right because I’m not like them, for example) while simultaneously feeding the power of those doing the selling.   


Richard, myself and others will be continuing our exploration of power in the digital era at ‘The Search for Privacy and Truth’ Steamhack event on 23th March. If you are near Central St Martins then do come along. (contact me for details)


40 thoughts on “Some real data on Web 2.0 use

  1. I’ve just had a quick look at your results – some things I’ve found interesting (such as the fact that post-docs were the most likely to be using Wikipedia!)

    I do have a few questions – in particular about services that you’ve not listed. For example, you’d got YouTube but not Google Video (I’ve personally found that the educational range at Google is better, or at least easier to find), you’ve also got MySpace but not Live Journal (or Elgg).
    Did you give people the option to add extra systems – either for the categories you had (Social networking) or for others (e.g. Gliffy for creating diagrams?)

    It’s useful to have this data though, as I’ve found that I have to get most of the data about what people are using from Pew Internet & that’s US based.

  2. They are very interesting data, Dave. It would be really interesting to show the aggregated data for every service not filtered by age, because I think that this data point to a profile of very intensive Internet user that ran across all ranges of ages. In some way, you take the orientation of respondent towards technology when you mention in the report that “the majority of respondents probably had some interest in leaning online to have initially discovered the page.”

    And a second question, would it be possible to elaborate data on how many people use one, two, three, etc of these services?

    Really good work. Thank you for sharing

  3. Useless questions = useless answers, or nothing we couldn’t have predicted about present and future usage patterns through the age groups. Many different spellings of “calendar” suggest the authors were in such a rush to get this to press, they couldn’t be bothered with spell-checking or proof-reading. B-, must try harder.

  4. Interesting- I note that my age group is left out of the anaylses (65+), and in my experience such pre-boomers are very high users of web2 and the intenet as a whole..and the younger ggrouops *40-65) less so.. at least the latetr seesm to show up!

  5. Thanks for this survey, it was very insightful. The growth of social networking over such a short period of time is really phenominal. I wonder when web 3.0 will start…

  6. I’ve been experimenting with various collaboration & document sharing tools and have discovered an excellent site. It is a very user friendly, web-based application that is well worth taking the time to explore. Take a few minutes and look at The tutorials are excellent & you don’t need to be a Rocket Scientist to figure out how to use it. It even offers a free version so you can try it on for size.

  7. I would be really interested in seeing a copy of the final report but the link provided does not work. Please could you send me a copy as it may well support my dissertation.

  8. nteresting- I note that my age group is left out of the anaylses (65+), and in my experience such pre-boomers are very high users of web2 and the intenet as a whole..and the younger ggrouops *40-65) less so.. at least the latetr seesm to show up!

  9. Pingback: Eso de la Web 2.0

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