Social Media, Interactivity and Participation

Chapter Introduction

Media manage power by structuring our participation in the creation and circulation of meaning.

How do interactive media technologies organise participation in public life?

What are some of the differing accounts of interactivity?

How are power relationships formed and managed in an interactive media system?


We begin this chapter by conceptualising social and interactive media. We then map out some key claims about interactivity:

  • Interactive media enable new forms of participation: ordinary people can create and circulate content and express their point of view.
  • Interactive media are responsive and customised.
  • Interactive media facilitate greater transparency and surveillance.

Cases & Activities

Filter bubbles

Watch Eli Pariser’s TED talk ‘Beware online ‘filter bubbles’’.

Pariser argues that algorithms like Facebook’s news feed or the Netflix recommendation system tend to show us content that reflects ideas we already agree with, while making the lives and ideas of people who are different to us less visible.

Some argue these algorithms ‘give audiences what they want’, while others say media and cultural producers have an important public role to play in challenging audiences and exposing them to alternative ways of life and points of view.

What are the consequences of algorithms deciding what content we see?



Eli Pariser’s ‘Filter Bubbles’ TED talk.


Nate Silver and data-driven blogging

The popularity of Nate Silver during the 2012 US Presidential race offers one example of the attention and influence a well-resourced and educated blogger can exert on the coverage of politics. Silver uses big data to offer a new kind of meta-coverage of the political process. Where established cable news pundits continually called the Obama-Romney race as very close, Silver predicted a 90% chance that Obama would win. Silver illustrates and extends Hindman’s arguments. He is a highly educated, white, middle-class male. After rising to prominence as a blogger, he joined the New York Times, and moved into the centre of the media-political process in the US during the 2008 and 2012 Presidential elections.  Silver is not just a blogger, he is also symptomatic of another aspect of interactive media, the way big data analysis reshape how we use information to represent public life. Silver can only do big data analysis of politics in a society where vast sets of data are readily available. And, where he can get access to those (often private and commercial) sets of data. He is a new kind of political elite, reshaping public discussions of politics, and upsetting and undermining established elites along the way. His blog doesn’t necessarily reshape the way the public participates in the political process, but rather how they understand the way that political preferences are aggregated, predictable and – in his words – designable. Silver, unlike the political bloggers Hindman studied, produces a form of content that draws on the resources available in the interactive, networked, big data era. This reshapes how we understand the political. We shift away from using media to attempt to understand each other, and toward using media to predict each other.

Silver’s combination of analysing big data sets and blogging about it is a new form of meta-coverage, he enables the public to be ‘insiders’ who have access to how the political events will unfold. This data is used to shape, as much as inform, the public. Silver argues that his meta-coverage of the political process – that is calling the ‘race’ – is ‘good’ whereas as pundits are ‘bad’ because his is based on empirical data. The issue is that this kind of meta-coverage encourages us to imagine populations as predictable and therefore social and political problems as a matter of having enough data to manage the problem. Silver’s analysis is underpinned by the creation of a particular kind of public – one that willingly submits to surveillance. The more they participate, the more they register their information, the more they can be told about predictions being made about them. Those predictions shape them as a public. Silver illustrates how bloggers aren’t just a new elite in the sense that they get to speak about the political process, they are also part of legitimising the networked, informational, predictive form of politics brought about in part of the interactive technologies. As our public and political culture celebrates interactivity as politically empowering it legitimatises an interactive media system that promises democratisation, while at the same time engaging in ever more sophisticated modes of control of information and concentrations of power.

How does Nate Silver’s coverage contribute to democratic debate and participation?



Nate Silver’s TED talk ‘Does racism affect your vote?’

Nate Silver talks at Google.


The visual nature of social media

Visual content is critical to the live and affective dynamics of social media. Kraidy (2005, 2006) examines the use of popular culture and new media in political activity in the Arab world. Kraidy (2012) illustrates the connection between video and social media in circulating sentiments about political events. He argues that videos – often made this smartphones and laptops – adapt ‘old’ forms of political action like satire, theatre and home-made puppetry with the ‘new’ digital video and social networks. Video becomes especially powerful for several reasons:

  • Using smartphones and laptops citizens can easily produce video.
  • Using the internet video can be widely distributed bypassing sate and media gatekeepers.
  • Video can use popular culture codes and images easily understood around the globe.
  • Video can be resent and recirculated.

To illustrate, Kraidy (2012) examines video produced by Syrians during the uprising and civil war. Top Goon is a satirical series of videos produced by a group of young Syrians living in Beirut. The videos used finger-puppets, theatre and popular culture formats to satirise Assad and the Syrian regime. One of the videos use the global format of the Who Wants to be a Millionaire television game show. The video-makers adapted the format to Who Wants to Kill a Million with Assad appearing as the contestant answering questions such as ‘If you could commit a massacre in the capital Damascus who would you put in charge?’ and ‘Who’s the dumbest person in your regime?’    

Kraidy (2012) describes videos like Top Goon as creative insurrection: the use of cultural resources and media technologies under life threatening duress. This below the line media circulates online and gets appropriated by mainstream media where it creates alternative perspectives on political events. Kraidy argues that the videos are powerful not because they attempt to facilitate debate and dialogue (they don’t), but because they capture attention. Videos circulate across platforms like mobile, television, web, and tablet and become the talk of everyday life. They animate ordinary and popular discussions. The videos and their circulation create a performative public as they are replayed and circulated. Aside from their content the practices of sharing jokes about the regime creates social connections.

Public life is performed via the circulation of texts. The repetitive circulation of texts calls attention, brings a public into being, and acts as a petition against the powerful. The content of the arguments of the video is not what matters, the arguments against Assad and the Syrian regime are well known, the role the videos play is in creating content that can be circulated to gain attention. They gain attention because they affect their audiences – with humour, anger and hope. By sharing the videos individuals seek to express how they feel about the situation, and in doing so, affect their family, friends and social networks.

How do insurgents exploit the visual, mobile and networked nature of online media?

What claims about the power of interactive media do you find plausible?

How do interactive media enable marginalised groups to resist dominant groups and represent their identities?

What are the affordances and risks of interactive media to democracy?



Marwan Kraidy talking about insurgent video for the Annenberg School for Communication.

Further Readings

The readings below offer a variety of critical perspectives and arguments about interactivity and participation relating to personal privacy (boyd 2008, Fuchs 2012), the way social media structures relationships (van Dijck 2011), political participation (Dahlberg 2011), and the exploitation of audiences (Andrejevic 2011).

Andrejevic, M. (2010). Surveillance and alienation in the online economy. Surveillance & Society, 8(3), 278-287.

boyd, d. (2008). Facebook's Privacy Trainwreck. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 14(1), 13-20.

Dahlberg, L. (2011). Re-constructing digital democracy: An outline of four ‘positions’. New Media & society, 13(6), 855-872.

Fuchs, C. (2012). The political economy of privacy on Facebook. Television & New Media, 13(2), 139-159.

Hallinan, B., & Striphas, T. (2014). Recommended for you: The Netflix Prize and the production of algorithmic culture. New Media & Society.

Van Dijck, J. (2012). Facebook as a tool for producing sociality and connectivity. Television & New Media, 13(2), 160-176.