This article goes into how the spread of information is changing with the rise of digital media, answering the question of how the Instagram account ‘Shit You Should Care About’ participates in news distribution, and what that says about democracy.
'Shit You Should Care About' and democracy
Nowadays, the spread of news and information is not just done through mass media such as TV, radio, and newspapers. Digital media and its non-elite actors are more involved in the distribution of information than ever, as we see social media platforms being essential for many people in order to participate. ‘Regular’ people are able to now use these platforms to highlight the news and issues that they care about. One notable example of this is the Instagram account ‘Shit You Should Care About’ (SYSCA), which was started in 2018 by three university students from Wellington (see Figure 1). Their title says it all: it is made to share ‘shit’ that people should care about, which in their case is often political or cultural news.
Figure 1 shows how they often repost tweets on Instagram and use visuals together with headlines in order to share the latest news. As of January 18th, 2022, they have more than 3.5 million followers on Instagram alone. With easy-to-digest posts about global news, combined with the regular ‘mundane polls’ and the use of many pictures of Harry Styles, SYSCA shows a way of news-sharing that is only possible due to the nature of digital media and its developments in the last few years.
Power distributions in the hybrid media system
The current media landscape is a result of the ever-changing and growing use of social media platforms. ‘Older’ and ‘newer’ media are not separated from each other, as different types of media not only co-exist but form a system through the interactions among different media logics. This system is what Andrew Chadwick (2013) calls the Hybrid Media System. There is an ongoing interconnection and interdependence of all relevant media, and the actors in this system are the ones who create, tap, and steer information flows (Chadwick, 2013).
Identifying how media shape fields such as politics, requires us to think about how media interact with these different fields. A useful concept here is media logic, first introduced by David Altheide and Robert Snow (1979). This approach suggests we understand the emerging norms of mass media in daily practice in fields such as politics. Van Dijck and Poell (2013) expand this and make a distinction between mass media logic and social media logic. The practices in both mass media and social media are penetrating other areas of life, and this is visible in the case of ‘Shit You Should Care About’ and their form of participation online.
With their frequent online presence, non-elite participants are on top of everything and are able to share and discuss the latest news immediately
As argued by Chadwick, Dennis, and Smith (2016), the hybrid media system has significant implications for the construction of news. The logics of digital media are being integrated into the daily practice of bringing news to the public. In instances of fast-paced breaking news, the hybrid nature of news production is revealed. In these information cycles, logics of newer online media are hybridized with those of older broadcast and print media (Chadwick, Dennis & Smith, 2016). These cycles involve a more diverse range and a number of actors and interactions as traditionally and contain many non-elite participants who mostly interact online. SYSCA is an example of these participants. With their frequent online presence, non-elite participants are on top of everything and are able to share and discuss the latest news immediately, causing the grip of media elites on participation to loosen.
This means that the hybrid media system also features conditions that might empower or disempower these participants. What counts as participation is now dependent on the interplay of older and newer media logics. This allows new actors to come in who know how to easily switch between these older and newer media logics, such as the team behind SYSCA. As a collective of university students, they know how news can be made accessible for other users of social media platforms. As one of the founders explained in an interview with the multimedia platform The Denizen, they “are just a bunch of non-experts helping people give a shit — about literally anything” (Riddiford, M, 2021). They describe themselves as non-experts, but still seem to be able to reach more than 3 million people with their distribution of news.
As the people from SYSCA are able to react quickly to uprising mainstream issues, identity and solidarity are produced and reproduced as it meets expectations of authenticity and connectedness, and these are cultural values that have become embedded among online activists (Chadwick, Dennis & Smith, 2016). These values gain them symbolic power, which in turn gives them more political power in the public sphere (Thompson, 2020). They are able to shape a narrative frame that is easy to understand and accessible for people all over the world.
Communication practices in digital media
With the development of the hybrid media system and media logics, communication practices also expanded. The use of communication media such as social media platforms also involves “the creation of new forms of action and interaction, new kinds of social relationships and new ways of relating to others and to oneself” (Thompson, 2020). Next to the three basic types of interaction: face-to-face interaction, mediated interaction, and mediated quasi-interaction, Thompson (2020) has now added a fourth type of interaction in the light of the digital revolution: mediated online interaction. This type of interaction can be described as a many-to-many interaction. It is dialogical in character and oriented towards a multiplicity of other recipients.
The best setting for this type of interaction is social network sites, where individuals create and continue social relationships with both close and distant others. These sites also enable users to share their social networks so that connections can be made with a multiplicity of distant others that would not otherwise be made (boyd & Ellison, 2008). SYSCA utilizes this type of interaction, as their posts are directed towards the general public, but they are also able to share some more personal updates about their lives. In Figure 2 below, we see an example of how the founders use the account to share some personal thoughts. In a caption underneath a picture they reposted of one of their favorite Twitter threads that went viral, one of the founders shares that they are currently enjoying the holidays and taking a small break while signing the message with their own name so that their followers know who of the founders typed this specific message. Their messages give a sense of mediated intimacy that mainstream media channels do not have (Turner, 2018).
The character of these social relationships is both shaped by the affordances of the platform and by the extent to which these types of interactions are taking place. Specific platforms or technologies may therefore also blur the boundaries between the four types of interactions by enabling individuals to interact in different ways. And because the mix of interaction in social life changed, “so too did the ways in which individuals appear to and before others” (Thompson, 2020). Visibility between actors is not tied to spatial and temporal properties anymore. As interactions are stretched out in space and time, so is the field of vision. SYSCA, with their following, have a great amount of visibility on Instagram as an international audience can see their posts at all times of the day.
This also means a change in the political field. Political rulers used to primarily interact with other members of the political elite and their visibility was restricted. However, with the rise of mass media and now social media, the relation between rulers and subjects is changing and the political field itself is partly being reconstituted by these new actions and interactions. Where rulers have more possibilities to reach a bigger audience, the audience itself can now engage with these rulers as well. A good example of this is the use of Twitter by ex-president Donald Trump. Before he was banned, he used social media as a preferred mode of interacting with citizens and his political base. By using Twitter he bypassed established media channels and allowed him to say whatever he wanted to more than 50 million followers.
Digital media platforms themselves are now the ones who set the rules on who can participate under what conditions
All of these changes also disrupt the settled roles of institutional gatekeepers such as established media organizations. And as argued before, new, non-elite players enter the field and are able to use communication media to interact with others easily. Digital media platforms themselves are now the ones who set the rules on who can participate under what conditions, due to their different affordances and algorithms, instead of established mainstream media channels and organizations.
Fragmented participation in the virtual sphere
Even though the hybrid media system and mediated online interaction allow non-elites to exert power in news distribution and discussion participation, it does not necessarily imply a more inclusive form of democracy. An interesting aspect of the internet as a public sphere is that it has the ability to connect people from diverse backgrounds, and that anonymous communication can lead to more open and free communication (Papacharissi, 2002). However, as it becomes more diverse, communication might also become more fragmented. Different focuses attract different people and may lead to smaller and specialized discussions. Even though SYSCA is a platform with a big following, its content is still partly directed towards a specific audience. Next to using humor and accessible language in order to bring the news, something that has been associated with the account is that they post pictures of international star Harry Styles together with their news. This seems to be appreciated by most of their followers, but some people have comments on how Harry Styles is not important, and how it ruins the good informative nature of SYSCA. The founders of SYSCA have complete freedom in what they decide to share, and this open communication might push some of their audience away, as not everyone might want to see Harry Styles when they expect to see news and information (see Figure 3).
The way that SYSCA communicates then appeals most to people who also like Harry Styles. SYSCA becomes a space with like-minded people, and we see this happen more often in the virtual sphere. As Papacharissi argues, “as the virtual mass becomes subdivided into smaller and smaller discussion groups, the ideal of a public sphere that connects many people online eludes us” (Papacharissi, 2002).
It is not just the greater participation in politics that determines democracy
The public sphere is changed by the internet in a way that we have not seen before. SYSCA's way of spreading news helps in fostering public debate but does this in a complex media system where attention-grabbing is the essence of most media's concerns. Therefore, this cyberspace might not become ‘the new’ public sphere, but a completely different sphere such as the virtual sphere. It enhances and changes democracy and dialogue, and the virtual sphere holds a great deal of promise as a political medium (Papacharissi, 2002). It is not just the greater participation in politics that determines democracy. The content, diversity, and impact of this greater participation need to be considered carefully.
What we should actually care about
‘Shit You Should Care About’ is a great example of how new participants enter news discussions in the hybrid media system. Digital media logics are being integrated into the distribution of news and information, which means that there is a space for non-elites online to participate and that the grip of established media organizations is loosened. Social media accounts such as SYSCA, a collective of university students who are also fans of Harry Styles, are now more important to news and politics than ever. Communication practices in the distribution of news have expanded, and new types of interaction arise such as mediated online interaction. The social media platform and the type of interaction it enables, define the relationship between SYSCA and its followers, and the settled roles of institutional gatekeepers are disrupted now that these platforms set the rules on participation. However, even though greater participation in political discussions and news is now possible, it does not solitarily determine democracy. The way that non-elites participate may also lead to many specialized discussions, and this is seen in how SYSCA creates a space for Harry Styles fans within their distribution on news.
As one of many new actors, SYSCA shows that non-elites are becoming a big part of news distributions and political discussions in the hybrid media system. The internet allows for greater participation, but this is not a solitary factor determining democracy. We also need to look at the content of this participation and the way it has an impact on both the diversity of participation and democracy.
The rules of participation in democracy have been changing and developing together with the rise of digital media, and political and cultural debates now need to create space for online platforms and non-elite participants such as SYSCA. They are the ones who, in an accessible sphere, allow millions of people to be a part of discussions that used to be for the elite and established media only.
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