In his 1981 publication The Theory of Communicative Action, Jürgen Habermas argues that as the relationship between the individual and the state transforms into one of client and service-provider, the public voice has been objectified as a target upon which both political and commercial marketers intervene. Contemporary media markets control public space in such a way that the “most reasonable” individual public argument no longer forms public opinion. The demise of the public sphere as a space that fosters growth is a result of the pursuit of wider audiences and advertising opportunities. Mark Poster’s critical essay, “Cyberdemocracy: Internet and the Public Sphere” situates a networked public as consumers of media whereas the offline public meeting spaces, including the “agora, the New England town hall, the village Church, the coffee house, the tavern, the public square, a convenient barn, a union hall, a park, a factory lunchroom and even a street corner … remain but no longer serve as organizing centers for political discussion and action” (Poster 4). Throughout the 1990s, scholars continued to conceptualise Habermas’s public sphere in a postmodern society; where Habermas’s public was found biased towards the bourgeois male and ultimately criticised as a utopian construct. Zizi Papacharissi writes succinctly, “how do we recreate something online, when it never really existed offline?” (Papacharissi 20). In John Hartley’s The Politics of Pictures, the author declares that the public cannot be located at any one place, but that they are found “large as life, in the media” (Hartley 1). In other words, the public sphere is not contained; rather it is symbolically identified as the media itself.
In this essay, I am not interested in punctuating an online public sphere. What is essential is the historical struggle in locating a public that is decentralised and diverse. At stake is a public trapped by media, where the media is controlled by corporate elites. Corporate media campaigns have become a tyranny of the majority, perpetuating a crisis of democracy. I posit that contemporary websites resultant of Web 2.0 ideologies are being used to organise and direct activists to behave in opposition to lifestyle mythologies perpetuated by such campaigns. This form of activism has yet to be categorised, but relies on participation both on and offline. It is like culture jamming and blogging, but both labels are inaccurate. The case studies, Couchsurfing.com, Delocator.net and Fallenfruit.org, embrace a hybrid form of online/offline activism, organised by user-generated content that directs action in local communities.
The Crisis of Democracy
Brian Wallis opens his 1990 essay “Democracy and Cultural Activism” with “today America faces a crisis of democracy” (Wallis 5). Wallis traces his statement to a report written by the Trilateral Commission in 1975. The Crisis of Democracy examines the relationship between civil disobedience throughout the 1960s and a stagnating international economy. In the U.S. section, Samuel P. Huntington claimed the American crisis of democracy was a result of “an excess of democracy” (Huntington 113). He writes, “the effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups” (Huntington 114). Wallis replies, “The Crisis of Democracy was just one sign from corporate America that the foundation of liberal democracy would be restructured so as to be maintained by the ruling class” (Wallis 6). The crisis of democracy in the 1960s was understood by the Trilateral Commission as one of over-participation by individual citizens, while Wallis ascertains that the crisis of democracy in the 1980s would become one of overt control by the state and media.
When Cool Culture Dominates, Who Is in Control?
Although Huntington and Wallis take opposing points of view, each positions the crisis of democracy in relation to an imbalance between state governance and civic participation. Contemporary Americans are consumers surrounded by constant advertising and media bombardment by corporate enterprises. (I feel obligated to make clear that I’m addressing the public as consumers who will want to dissent; and thereby understand them to be persons with plural identities. As Trebor Scholz added to the mailing list of the Institute for Distributed Creativity (iDC), “much of the most visible writing about the sociable web reduces networked publics to their function as consumers, ignoring them in their role as lovers, parents, citizens, or working poor. In the few cases that people are addressed in these roles, the commentary comes from a market perspective”.) Kalle Lasn argues that corporate dominance over the mass media is responsible for the manifestation of a socio-political crisis. The governance-participation dialectic established by Huntington and revisited by Wallis is modified by Lasn such that the crisis of democracy is a result of overt control by the corporate strata over the media market. The imbalance remains situated between control and participation, however Lasn views the dominant party as the corporation. (It should be noted that “corporate control” could refer to a particular methodology towards the production of goods, human resources policies, working conditions, and so on; but here I am interested in the lifestyle paradigms that big businesses sell through media campaigns.)
Lasn’s book Culture Jam: The Uncooling of America™ reads as a manifesto for a millennial reincarnation of Timothy Leary’s “Turn on, tune in, and drop out,” but Lasn inverts the message. He commands his readers to turn off (the television), tune out (of mass media’s agenda) and drop in (unexpectedly, as culture jammers). When writing about American culture, Lasn often substitutes the word “culture” with “cool.” As in, American culture resides in the development of a marketable and highly manufactured, American cool. This suggests that American culture consists of marketed products carrying symbolic meanings associated with status (the brand) and lifestyle mythologies. In Huntington’s’ section of The Crisis of Democracy, he states, “‘Who governs?’ is obviously one of the most important questions to ask concerning any political system” (Huntington 92). “Who governs?” translates into a question regarding the creation of cool/culture. By quoting a 1997 report that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Lasn reminds his readers that, “fifty-one of the world’s hundred largest economies were corporations, not countries” (Kaplan 71). Due to its economic superiority, a corporation yields more power than any one citizen, while it’s consistent interest in the bottom line results in advertising campaigns and strategies persuading the public into a uniform identity. Lasn’s America™ is a hegemonic state. The corporately owned, publicly traded coffeehouses lining the streets of American cities are not culture, but cool. This cool-for-culture replacement is a global pandemic due to international corporate expansion. What happens to individual identity and autonomy when the citizens of the globe can be understood as either consumers of or producers for McDonalds™ and Nike™?
Naomi Klein’s 2000 book, No Logo, charts the problems created by corporate industries and media campaigns when the creation of brands foregoes the creation of products from four points of dissent: “no space”, “no choice”, “no jobs”, “no logo”. Each section of Klein’s book is an individual masterpiece, however within the chapters of “no logo” Klein reviews how citizens act out against the corporations responsible for branded cool/culture: “despite the rhetoric of One Worldism, the planet remains sharply divided between producers and consumers, and the enormous profits raked in by the superbrands are premised upon these worlds remaining as separate from each other as possible” (Klein 346). The corporate assumption that consumers and producers serve individual functions is what activists subvert in their media-making. When citizens become media producers, they yield the power of persuasion. The shift from online consumer to media producer is an essential component of the case studies that follow relying upon Web 2.0 ideologies.
When corporations create a brand, they create a simulation of an identity to solicit a target audience. Lasn argues that when this cultural simulacra, otherwise known as America™, pervades American lifestyles and the perception of Americans to international communities, the socio-political system formerly known as America (read: democracy) has failed. Lasn believes the failure is rooted in the disproportionate power relationships between corporate campaigns and consumers. Klein agrees, “businesses make business decisions, we tell ourselves – even when the effects of those decisions are clearly political. And when retailers dominate the market to the extent that these chains do today, their actions can’t help raising questions about the effect on civil liberties and public life” (Klein 168). Huntington, Wallis, Lasn and Klein each arrive at the conclusion that a socio-political crisis of democracy is the tension between control (whether by the state or the corporation) and participation.
Admittedly, “Web 2.0” is a phrase often met with eye rolling as it has adopted the shallow meaninglessness of a marketing buzzword; but it is useful as shorthand for a few ideas about online interactivity. Defining Web 2.0 by technological developments is less purposeful here than the impact of Web 2.0 ideologies on activism and organisation. Tim O’Reilly delineates core competencies of Web 2.0 companies in his 2005 essay, “What Is Web 2.0” which are distilled here as a method of defining how the case studies rely on these concepts. Specifically, there are two key components to these sites:
- Web 2.0 sites take advantage of accessing a decentralised database and harnessing collective intelligence. As an example, O’Reilly notes BitTorrent, which “demonstrates a key Web 2.0 principle: the service automatically gets better the more people use it” (O’Reilly 5).
- User-generated content makes a Web 2.0 site meaningful to its audience. Commercial sites such as MySpace, Flickr, YouTube, and so on, are using this model of content creation as a basis for generating interactivity. O’Reilly writes, “Wikipedia … is a radical experiment in trust, applying Eric Raymond’s dictum … that ‘with enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow,’ to content creation” (O’Reilly 7).
The sites that follow employ Web 2.0 ideologies by harnessing collective intelligence and proliferating user-generated content for the purpose of organisation. They encourage citizens to use the internet to inform offline activities, in direct opposition to lifestyles promoted by corporate campaigns.
The Post-Media Era: The Digital Informs the Analog
More than a decade before the Web 2.0, Pierre-Félix Guattari declared that as a society we have entered a “post-media era.” Guattari’s response to the media industry maintains a disposition similar to Lasn’s, but his discourse focuses on the freedom of the subject via technological developments. Gary Genosko outlines Guattari’s principles in The Guattari Reader, including:
- foreseeable technological developments;
- the necessary redefinition of the relations between producers and consumers;
- the institution of new social practices and their interference with the development of media;
- the development of information technologies (Genosko 34).
In his 1996 essay Remaking Social Practices Guattari emphasises the significance of social responsibility towards the media industry by suggesting the mass media take no responsibility for its effects upon society. Lasn and Guattari point fingers at the media, declaring corporate marketing an industry that creates unobtainable lifestyle myths leading consumers into a state of economic and psychological schizophrenia. Guattari’s solution to the problems of an unchecked media is “the reconstruction of a collective dialogue capable of producing innovative practices” (Guattari 264). Guattari fails to expand on his notion of innovative practices; but within the breadth of his work, it is assumed he was alluding to Genosko’s post-media outline. In summary, he calls for soft-subversions as actions of dissent taken by decentralised subjects. In this context, media users become content providers subverting the dominant paradigm of mass culture by using web databases to organise social change. Unanswered is what, specifically, does Guattari or Lasn want to change? By definition, culture jamming does not aim to change the patterns of the media industry; instead it critiques the mythologies sold by advertising campaigns. Guattari never specifies how the media industry should be changed or critiqued by using technological developments. It is the movement away from the critique of the industry and towards local solutions in social practices offline that empower the case studies. Web 2.0 users who are in opposition to the corporate culture transform themselves from audiences to content creators and from single persons to group participants. Within the context of an anti-corporate movement, I interpret user activity and site developers as direct descendants of the critiques offered by Lasn and Guattari; and their activities are a response to a crisis of democracy, where participation takes place both online (organisation) and offline (action).
Henry Jenkins addresses the role of interactive consumers in the marketplace in his essay Interactive Audiences, as he writes, “audiences are gaining greater power and autonomy as they enter into the new knowledge culture.” (Jenkins 158). Jenkins’ essay culminates in differentiating culture jamming from ‘an interactive model for social reform’. That is, he differentiates jamming from blogging. Mark Dery defines jamming as the noise that interrupts a signal and purposefully encourages interruptions; and Paul Baines notes that while jamming may interrupt mass media, it is limited in its ability to create social change. In opposition to jamming, interrupting, or creating noise, Jenkins describes the blogger as a facilitator of new or alternative information. Jenkins writes, “in an era marked both by the expanded corporate reach of the commodity culture and the emerging importance of grassroots knowledge cultures, consumer power may now be best exercised by blogging rather than jamming media signals” (Jenkins 168).
I concur with Jenkins that consumer power should be exercised, but the blog is problematic. Bloggers may facilitate alternative news; however, bloggers address a web-based audience without acknowledging a spatial offline environment. The three websites that follow extend the reach of the blogger by engaging their publics to contribute or modify online information that speaks to the users’ local lifestyles. These sites respond to the crisis of democracy by encouraging participation and lifestyle choices contradicting the myths perpetuated by the global commodity culture. Anti-hegemonic solutions include a social networking site devoted to developing relationships between travelers outside of the tourism and hotel industries (CouchSurfing.com), a battle cry to support independent businesses on a website that centralises local cafés, bookstores and movie theaters (Delocator.net), and online maps to free fruit ready for harvesting in Los Angeles neighborhoods (Fallenfruit.org). These sites use standard Web 2.0 ideologies to move the user into action when she is offline. I should mention that I have directly participated (both on and offline) in the following as a couch surfer, a site creator, and a jam canner.
Casey Fenton launched CouchSurfing.com to friends in beta version in January, 2003, although the CouchSurfing.com global community as it appears now is a result of a version 2.0 re-launch that took place in July 2006. CouchSurfing.com is a non-profit organisation. It is a social networking site where participants can find or offer couches to traveling users. According to the CouchSurfing.com mission statement, “CouchSurfing isn’t about the furniture – it’s not just about finding free accommodations around the world – it’s about participating in creating a better world. We strive to make a better world by opening our homes, our hearts, and our lives”.
Social networking and the mapping of available couches on the website permits local acts of transgression. Users are encouraged to alter their concept of traveling from rooming in isolation to engaging with local culture. By using Couchsurfing.com, traveling becomes a communal act fostering international communications between citizens who, although they make their first connections online, meet offline as one hosts the other.
In January 2008, I registered as a traveler and found a host for a conference trip to Chicago. While at first the experience felt like hitch-hiking, I did meet a local woman who picked me up from the conference, showed me a restaurant and bar I never would have found on my own and was available for socialising when I returned from the conference throughout the weekend. This was a twist on my prior experiences of the academic conference. Normally I check in to the hotel offering a group rate where, even though my neighbors are often fellow attendees, I never meet them. My Couchsurfing experience was true to its mission. I made a friend and experienced Chicago in a way that I never would have if I were staying with the herd; and I organised the experience online to facilitate the analog experience.
Delocator.net is the result of a frustration I felt in April 2004 while visiting SoHo (Manhattan). In an attempt to avoid Starbucks™ (a personal practice I developed as the chain grew throughout the nineties), I was surprised when I could not find a locally owned café, authentic to the neighborhood historically known for its transformation by creative occupants. This instance led to the creation of Delocator.net, a site that provides a database of independently owned cafés across America. On April 1, 2005, Delocator.net launched as the alternative online store locator to Starbucks™. Online store locators are standard tools on corporate chain websites. I wanted the same information to be accessible for local cafés. User participation was crucial to the site’s development and success as the independent store entries in the database are blog-like offerings left by web users. The code is also available for download to promote delocating (Starbucks® or any other corporation) in or outside of America. The site includes the message that “corporate industries invading American neighborhoods, from coffee chains to bookstore chains, music chains and movie theatre chains, pose a threat to the authenticity of our unique neighborhoods”.
By the summer of 2006, Delocator.net included locations of independent movie theatres and bookstores; and Canadian and British versions of the site have been established. The site provides a common platform for owners and consumers who shop locally. As a grassroots effort, this site endorses a message and a practice that resists sponsorship and falls outside of the mass media industry. Although the logo parodies Starbucks’ green, circular shape, the site itself is not simply a “jam”. Lasn’s media subversion methodologies align with Guattari’s technological protocol for new social practices.
David Burns, Matias Viegener, and Austin Young are the artists/activists who created FallenFruit.org, a site dedicated to community mappings of fruit that has fallen in public spaces, such as alleys, parking lots, and sidewalks in Los Angeles. Initially commissioned by Rhizome.org (2005), the men of Fallen Fruit also extend this project beyond the web at jamming sessions, where participants harvest fruit and can public jam. The Fallen Fruit manifesto explains, “Fallen Fruit is a mapping and manifesto for all the free fruit we can find. Every day there is food somewhere going to waste. We encourage you to find it, tend and harvest it”. Developed within Guattari’s notion of post-media, the Fallen Fruit manifesto is distributed with the tools required to change social behavior through alternative news sources both online via the Rhizome web community and offline at jamming sessions held in art, activism and food related venues. (See Figure 1.)
Figure 1. Jam that was canned at a Fallen Fruit Public Fruit Jam, at Machine, an art space in Los Angeles, September 2006. Some participants used maps from Fallenfruit.org to find fruit for jamming, some brought their own fruit, and others participated by supplying empty jars for canning the jam that was made by and for the public.
The Fallen Fruit website is the least technologically developed of the three sites reviewed. This site displays maps in the Los Angeles area, but submitting a map is done the old-fashioned way (through email). The amount of fruit, and subsequently, jam that was produced in one afternoon was astonishing. The mission of this site is categorically different than the others because it is not a reaction against a particular industry (tourism or coffee/chains) rather it is a site that reacts against the culture of consumer waste. However, Fallen Fruit uses the web to collect and distribute maps in support of offline activities. Although Fallen Fruit may not feel like a typical Web 2.0 site (technologically), ideologically, it proliferates collective intelligence.
CouchSurfing.com, Delocator.net, and FallenFruit.org create new social practices by subverting the ideological norms of the Web 2.0 to promote alternative lifestyle solutions, locally. Each site is a protest that urges users to participate both on and offline to create cultural exchange and to dissent against corporate cultural governance. Christine Harold notes that culture jamming may be a strategy of rhetorical protest. As opposed to jamming, the site manifestos are a physical strategy that is not lost in rhetoric. Lasn’s culture jamming techniques meet Guattari’s interest in the advancement of new technologies for social change. Casey Fenton, myself, and the men of Fallen Fruit are not bloggers, although our audiences may leave blog-like postings. The websites do not intend to create noise; instead they urge citizens into action. Participants are empowered online as content generators and offline as activists living by the sites’ creeds.
The methodologies of these three sites relate participation in the online sphere to actions offline; and the intersection of the digital and the analog provides user-generated organisation for asynchronous action. The public is mediated by corporate messages, as Habermas suggested in the 1980s and Klein and Lasn supported with arguments in the 90s and 2000. Advertising and media bombardment is a crisis of democracy, evidenced by the tension between the power of the corporate media and the remote voices of individual citizens. With technological optimism, these websites enable the user to transform her behavior in the analog world while resisting the dominant voice of the corporate media. The participating digital public at each of these sites is willing to resist Lasn’s cool-culture within local communities, from couches around the world to the streets of Los Angeles.