Social media companies like to claim the world. Mark Zuckerberg says Facebook is “building a global community”. Twitter promises to show you “what’s happening in the world right now”. Even Parler claims to be the “global town square”.
Indeed, among the fungible aspects of digital culture is the promise of geographic fungibility—the interchangeability of location and national provenance. The taglines of social media platforms tap into the social imagination of the Internet erasing distance—Marshall McLuhan’s global village on a touch screen (see fig. 1).
Fig. 1: Platform taglines: YouTube, Twitter, Parler, and Facebook have made globality part of their pitch to users.
Yet users’ perceptions of geographic fungibility remain unclear. Scholars have proposed forms of cosmopolitan and global citizenship in which national borders play less of a role in how people engage with political ideas (Delanty; Sassen). Others suggest the potential erasure of location may be disorienting (Calhoun). “Nobody lives globally”, as Hugh Dyer writes (64).
In this article, I interrogate popular and academic assumptions about global political spaces, looking at geographic fungibility as a condition experienced by users. The article draws on interviews conducted with Twitter users in the Scandinavian region. Norway, Sweden, and Denmark offer an interesting contrast to online spaces because of their small and highly cohesive political cultures; yet these countries also have high Internet penetration rates and English proficiency levels, making them potentially highly globally connected (Syvertsen et al.).
Based on a thematic analysis of these interviews, I find fungibility emerges as a key feature of how users interact with politics at a global level in three ways: invisibility: fungibility as disconnection; efficacy: fungibility as empowerment; and antagonism: non-fungibility as strategy. Finally, in contrast to currently available models, I propose that online practices are not characterised so much by cosmopolitan norms, but by what I describe as fungible citizenship.
Geographic Fungibility and Cosmopolitan Hopes
Let’s back up and take a real-life example that highlights what it means for geography to be fungible. In March 2017, at a high-stakes meeting of the US House Intelligence Committee, a congressman suddenly noticed that President Donald Trump was not only following the hearing on television, but was live-tweeting incorrect information about it on Twitter.
“This tweet has gone out to millions of Americans”, said Congressman Jim Himes, noting Donald Trump’s follower count. “16.1 million to be exact” (C-SPAN).
Only, those followers weren’t just Americans; Trump was tweeting to 16.1 million followers worldwide (see Sevin and Uzunoğlu). Moreover, the committee was gathered that day to address an issue related to geographic fungibility: it was the first public hearing on Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 American presidential race—which occurred, among other places, on Twitter.
In a way, democratic systems are based on fungibility. One person one vote. Equality before the law. But land mass was not imagined to be commutable, and given the physical restrictions of communication, participation in the public sphere was largely assumed to be restricted by geography (Habermas).
But online platforms offer a fundamentally different structure. Nancy Fraser observes that “public spheres today are not coextensive with political membership. Often the interlocutors are neither co-nationals nor fellow citizens” (16). Netflix, YouTube, K-Pop, #BLM: the resources that people draw on to define their worlds come less from nation-specific media (Robertson 179). C-SPAN’s online feed—if one really wanted to—is as easy to click on in Seattle as in Stockholm. Indeed, research on Twitter finds geographically dispersed networks (Leetaru et al.). Many Twitter users tweet in multiple languages, with English being the lingua franca of Twitter (Mocanu et al.). This has helped make geographic location interchangeable, even undetectable without use of advanced methods (Stock).
Such conditions might set the stage for what sociologists have envisioned as cosmopolitan or global public spheres (Linklater; Szerszynski and Urry). That is, cross-border networks based more on shared interest than shared nationality (Sassen 277). Theorists observing the growth of online communities in the late 1990s and early 2000s proposed that such activity could lead to a shift in people’s perspectives on the world: namely, by closing the communicative distance with the Other, people would also close the moral distance. Delanty suggested that “discursive spaces of world openness” could counter nationalist tendencies and help mobilise cosmopolitan citizens against the negative effects of globalisation (44).
However, much of this discourse dates to the pre-social media Internet. These platforms have proved to be more hierarchical, less interactive, and even less global than early theorists hoped (Burgess and Baym; Dahlgren, “Social Media”; Hindman). Although ordinary citizens certainly break through, entrenched power dynamics and algorithmic structures complicate the process, leading to what Bucher describes as a reverse Panopticon: “the possibility of constantly disappearing, of not being considered important enough” (1171). A 2021 report by the Pew Research Center found most Twitter users receive few if any likes and retweets of their content. In short, it may be that social media are less like Marshall McLuhan’s global village and more like a global version of Marc Augé’s “non-places”: an anonymous and disempowering whereabouts (77–78).
Cosmopolitanism itself is also plagued by problems of legitimacy (Calhoun). Fraser argues that global public opinion is meaningless without a constituent global government. “What could efficacy mean in this situation?” she asks (15). Moreover, universalist sentiment and erasure of borders are not exactly the story of the last 15 years. Media scholar Terry Flew notes that given Brexit and the rise of figures like Trump and Bolsonaro, projections of cosmopolitanism were seriously overestimated (19).
Yet social media are undeniably political places. So how do we make sense of users’ engagement in the discourse that increasingly takes place here? It is this point I turn to next.
Citizenship in the Age of Social Media
In recent years, scholars have reconsidered how they understand the way people interact with politics, as access to political discourse has become a regular, even mundane part of our lives. Increasingly they are challenging old models of “informed citizens” and traditional forms of political participation. Neta Kligler-Vilenchik writes:
the oft-heard claims that citizenship is in decline, particularly for young people, are usually based on citizenship indicators derived from these legacy models—the informed/dutiful citizen. Yet scholars are increasingly positing … citizenship [is not] declining, but rather changing its form. (1891)
In other words, rather than wondering if tweeting is like a citizen speaking in the town square or merely scribbling in the margins of a newspaper, this line of thinking suggests tweeting is a new form of citizen participation entirely (Bucher; Lane et al.). Who speaks in the town square these days anyway?
To be clear, “citizenship” here is not meant in the ballot box and passport sense; this isn’t about changing legal definitions. Rather, the citizenship at issue refers to how people perceive and enact their public selves. In particular, new models of citizenship emphasise how people understand their relation to strangers through discursive means (Asen)—through talking, in other words, in its various forms (Dahlgren, “Talkative Public”). This may include anything from Facebook posts to online petitions (Vaughan et al.) to digital organising (Vromen) to even activities that can seem trivial, solitary, or apolitical by traditional measures, such as “liking” a post or retweeting a news story. Although some research finds users do see strategic value in such activities (Picone et al.), Lane et al. argue that small-scale acts are important on their own because they force us to self-reflect on our relationship to politics, under a model they call “expressive citizenship”. Kligler-Vilenchik argues that such approaches to citizenship reflect not only new technology but also a society in which public discourse is less formalised through official institutions (newspapers, city council meetings, clubs): “each individual is required to ‘invent themselves’, to shape and form who they are and what they believe in—including how to enact their citizenship” she writes (1892).
However, missing from these new understandings of politics is a spatial dimension. How does the geographic reach of social media sites play into perceptions of citizenship in these spaces? This is important because, regardless of the state of cosmopolitan sentiment, political problems are global: climate change, pandemic, regulation of tech companies, the next US president: many of society’s biggest issues, as Beck notes, “do not respect nation-state or any other borders” (4). Yet it’s not clear whether users’ correlative ability to reach across borders is empowering, or overwhelming.
Thus, inspired particularly by Delanty’s “micro” cosmopolitanism and Dahlgren’s conditions for the formation of citizenship (“Talkative Public”), I am guided by the following questions: how do people negotiate geographic fungibility online? And specifically, how do they understand their relationship to a global space and their ability to be heard in it?
Christensen and Jansson have suggested that one of the underutilised ways to understand media cultures is to talk to users directly about the “mediatized everyday” (1474). To that end, I interviewed 26 Twitter users in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. The Scandinavian region is a useful region of study because most people use the Web nearly every day and the populations have high English proficiency (Syvertsen et al.).
Participants were found in large-scale data scrapes of Twitter, using linguistic and geographic markers in their profiles, a process similar to the mapping of the Australian Twittersphere (Bruns et al.). The interviewees were selected because of their mixed use of Scandinavian languages and English and their participation in international networks. Participants were contacted through direct messages on Twitter or via email. In figure 2, the participants’ timeline data have been graphed into a network map according to who users @mentioned and retweeted, with lines representing tweets and colours representing languages.
The participants include activists, corporate consultants, government employees, students, journalists, politicians, a security guard, a doctor, a teacher, and unemployed people. They range from age 24 to 60. Eight are women, reflecting the gender imbalance of Twitter. Six have an immigrant background. Eight are right-leaning politically. Participants also have wide variation in follower counts in order to capture a variety of experiences on the platform (min=281, max=136,000, median=3,600, standard deviation=33,708). All users had public profiles, but under Norwegian rules for research data, they will be identified here by an ID and their country, gender, and follower count (e.g., P01, Sweden, M, 23,000).
Focussing on a single platform allowed the interviews to be more specific and makes it easier to compare the participants’ responses, although other social media often came up in the course of the interviews. Twitter was selected because it is often used in a public manner and has become an important channel for political communication (Larsson and Moe).
The interviews lasted around an hour each and were conducted on Zoom between May 2020 and March 2021.
Fig. 2: Network map of interview participants’ Twitter timelines.
Invisibility: The Abyss of the Global Village
Each participant was asked during the interview how they think about globality on Twitter. For many, it was part of the original reason for joining the platform. “Twitter had this reputation of being the hangout of a lot of the world’s intellectuals”, said P022 (Norway, M, 136,000). One Swedish woman described a kind of cosmopolitan curation process, where she would follow people on every continent, so that her feed would give her a sense of the world. “And yes, you can get that from international papers”, she told me, “but if I actually consumed as much as I do on Twitter in papers, I would be reading papers and articles all day” (P023, Sweden, F, 384).
Yet while globality was part of the appeal, it was also an abstraction. “I mean, the Internet is global, so everything you do is going to end up somewhere else”, said one Swedish user (P013, M, 12,000). Users would echo the taglines that social media allow you to “interact with someone half a world away” (P05, Norway, M, 3,300) but were often hard-pressed to recall specific examples.
A strong theme of invisibility—or feeling lost in an abyss—ran throughout the interviews. For many users this manifested in a lack of any visible response to their tweets. Even when replying to another user, the participants didn’t expect much dialogic engagement with them (“No, no, that’s unrealistic”.) For P04 (Norway, F, 2,000), tweeting back a heart emoji to someone with a large following was for her own benefit, much like the intrapersonal expressions described by Lane et al. that are not necessarily intended for other actors. P04 didn’t expect the original poster to even see her emoji.
Interestingly, invisibility was more of a frustration among users with several thousand followers than those with only a few hundred. Having more followers seemed to only make Twitter appear more fickle. “Sometimes you get a lot of attention and sometimes it’s completely disregarded” said P05 (Norway, M, 3,300). P024 (Sweden, M, 2,000) had essentially given up: “I think it’s fun that you found me [to interview]”, he said, “Because I have this idea that almost no one sees my tweets anymore”.
In a different way, P08 (Norway, F) who had a follower count of 121,000, also felt the abstraction of globality. “It’s almost like I’m just tweeting into a void or into space”, she said, “because it's too many people to grasp or really understand that these are real people”. For P08, Twitter was almost an anonymous non-place because of its vastness, compared with Facebook and Instagram where the known faces of her friends and family made for more finite and specific places—and thus made her more self-conscious about the visibility of her posts.
Efficacy: Fungibility as Empowerment
Despite the frequent feeling of global invisibility, almost all the users—even those with few followers—believed they had some sort of effect in global political discussions on Twitter. This was surprising, and seemingly contradictory to the first theme.
This second theme of empowerment is characterised by feelings of efficacy or perception of impact. One of the most striking examples came from a Danish man with 345 followers. I wondered before the interview if he might have automated his account because he replied to Donald Trump so often (see fig. 3). The participant explained that, no, he was just trying to affect the statistics on Trump’s tweet, to get it ratioed. He explained:
it's like when I'm voting, I'm not necessarily thinking [I’m personally] going to affect the situation, you know. … It’s the statistics that shows a position—that people don't like it, and they’re speaking actively against it. (P06, Denmark, M, 345)
Other participants described their role similarly—not as making an impact directly, but being “one ant in the anthill” or helping information spread “like rings in the water”. One woman in Sweden said of the US election:
I can't go to the streets because I'm in Stockholm. So I take to their streets on Twitter. I'm kind of helping them—using the algorithms, with retweets, and re-enforcing some hashtags. (P018, Sweden, F, 7,400)
Note that the participants rationalise their Twitter activities through comparisons to classic forms of political participation—voting and protesting. Yet the acts of citizenship they describe are very much in line with new norms of citizenship (Vaughan et al.) and what Picone et al. call “small acts of engagement”. They are just acts aimed at the American sphere instead of their national sphere.
Participants with large followings understood their accounts had a kind of brand, such as commenting on Middle Eastern politics, mocking leftist politicians, or critiquing the media. But these users were also sceptical they were having any direct impact. Rather, they too saw themselves as being “a tiny part of a combined effect from a lot of people” (P014, Norway, M, 39,000).
Fig. 3: Participant P06 replies to Trump.
Antagonism: Encounters with Non-Fungibility
The final theme reflects instances when geography became suddenly apparent—and thrown back in the faces of the users. This was often in relation to the 2020 American election, which many of the participants were following closely. “I probably know more about US politics than Swedish”, said P023 (Sweden, F, 380). Particularly among left-wing users who listed a Scandinavian location in their profile, tweeting about the topic had occasionally led to encounters with Americans claiming foreign interference. “I had some people telling me ‘You don't have anything to do with our politics. You have no say in this’” said P018 (Sweden, F, 7,400).
In these instances, the participants likewise deployed geography strategically. Participants said they would claim legitimacy because the election would affect their country too. “I think it’s important for the rest of the world to give them [the US] that feedback. That ‘we’re depending on you’” said P017 (Sweden, M, 280).
As a result of these interactions, P06 started to pre-emptively identify himself as Danish in his tweets, which in a way sacrificed his own geographic fungibility, but also reinforced a wider sense of geographic fungibility on Twitter. In one of his replies to Donald Trump, Jr., he wrote, “Denmark here. The world is hoping for real leader!”
Conclusion: Fungible Citizenship
The view that digital media are global looms large in academic and popular imagination. The aim of the analysis presented here is to help illuminate how these perceptions play into practices of citizenship in digital spaces. One of the contradictions inherent in this research is that geographic or linguistic information was necessary to find the users interviewed. It may be that users who are geographically anonymous—or even lie about their location—would have a different relationship to online globality.
With that said, several key themes emerged from the interviews: the abstraction and invisibility of digital spaces, the empowerment of geographic fungibility, and the occasional antagonistic deployment of non-fungibility by other users and the participants. Taken together, these themes point to geographic fungibility as a condition that can both stifle as well as create new arenas for political expression. Even spontaneous and small acts that aren’t expected to ever reach an audience (Lane et al.) nevertheless are done with an awareness of social processes that extend beyond the national sphere. Moreover, algorithms and metrics, while being the source of invisibility (Bucher), were at times a means of empowerment for those at a physical distance. In contrast to the cosmopolitan literature, it is not so much that users didn’t identify with their nation as their “community of membership” (Sassen)—they saw it as giving them an important perspective. Rather, they considered politics in the EU, US, UK, Russia, and elsewhere to be part of their national arena.
In this way, the findings support Delanty’s description of “changes within … national identities rather than in the emergence in new identities” (42). Yet the interviews do not point to “the desire to go beyond ethnocentricity and particularity” (42). Some of the most adamant and active global communicators were on the right and radical right. For them, opposition to immigration and strengthening of national identity were major reasons to be on Twitter. Cross-border communication for them was not a form of resistance to nationalism but wholly compatible with it.
Instead of the emergence of global or cosmopolitan citizenship then, I propose that what has emerged is a form of fungible citizenship. This is perhaps a more ambivalent, and certainly a less idealistic, view of digital culture. It implies that users are not elevating their affinities or shedding their national ties. Rather, the transnational effects of political decisions are viewed as legitimate grounds for political participation online.
This approach to global platforms builds on and nuances current discursive approaches to citizenship, which emphasise expression (Lane et al.) and contribution (Vaughan et al.) rather than formal participation within institutions. Perhaps the Scandinavian users cannot cast a vote in US elections, but they can still engage in the same forms of expression as any American with a Twitter account. That encounters with non-fungibility were so notable to the participants also points to the mundanity of globality on social media. Vaughan et al. write that “citizens are increasingly accustomed to participating in horizontal networks of relationships which facilitate more expressive, smaller forms of action” (17). The findings here suggest that they are also accustomed to participating in geographically agnostic networks, in which their expressions of citizenship are at once small, interchangeable, and potentially global.
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