Living in the Expressive Democracy
by Celia Hannon
Young people have more ways to express themselves than at any point in history. Cheap digital technology combined with internet cafes and free social software have put the power of the publishing house, the TV station and the record label at the finger tips of young people across Europe.
The power to create videos and moving images gives young people access to express themselves through the 20th Century’s most potent form of mass media. The medium that had a greater impact on politics and society than any other - shifting the way the world saw civil rights, war and famine.
This expression happens on the open market when young people make videos independently. And it also happens in private markets when young people take part in projects in community groups, with cultural organisations and in schools. It is in these places that they are assisted in the production of videos, often about themselves and their own lives. In both markets videos are often uploaded on Youtube and distributed through social networking sites like Bebo, Friendster, Myspace and Facebook. The result is a generation of young people who are visually literate on a scale never seen before.
This transfers power to young people. They are free to ridicule or challenge authority figures from politicians, teachers and popstars to their peers at school. Their inclination to be irreverent or creative may not be new – but the presence of a global audience is. Every opinion, minutiae of daily life or personality nuance becomes broadcastable material.
Unsurprisingly, young people find themselves less willing to be spoken for and more likely to want to assert themselves and their own opinions. Those who claim to speak for young people can no longer do so simply on the basis that their voice has a wider reach. Today young people can use their creativity to find ways to project their voice for themselves. The only certainty about this generation is that they share the desire to imprint their personality on everything they touch. From a Facebook profile to a television channel; this group expects each everyday experience to be tailored to them.
As politics continues to specialise in the big picture and ignore the politics of emotion, the attitudes of this generation present a major challenge for political leaders. In the late part of the 20th Century people’s material needs became less dependent on formal politics. Now their identities appear to be less dependent on them too. Why would young people turn to political figures to ‘represent’ them, when they are so well versed in representing themselves?
Levels of political ‘apathy’ amongst the young in Europe shows us that they are rapidly losing faith in formal politics. The unease about this fact has fuelled a rise in formal youth consultation mechanisms; to redress the fact that decision makers are unwilling or unable to listen to them on an everyday concerns. With good reason, young people often don’t believe their political leaders are able to solve sprawling international problems such as climate change and globalization. So they choose to wrestle with those big questions via the internet rather than the ballot box. As a result politics is taking unfamiliar forms and it is taking place in alternative forums.
Optimists say we needn’t worry. If young people want to represent their own aspirations by making a youtube video rather than joining the youth wing of a local political party, so be it. Youth media projects ‘empower’ young people and give them a voice. The important thing is that it’s political, even if that’s with a small p. They argue that even if they have no mainstream presence new, fluid communities are being created and new forms of cultural exchange are taking place just beneath the surface. Conversely, pessimists predict the fragmentation of societies and nation-states as young people use their new autonomy to cut loose permanently from their local communities, their political representatives and their schools.
The optimists and the pessimists both make two crucial errors.
Firstly, they assume that power to express things is the same as a powerful expression. It isn’t.
Just because you can express something, doesn’t mean that expression will have any status. The optimists assume that the explosion in the production of audio-visual media will somehow filter through into the process of political change, but that assumes that it will have enough status for politicians and other leaders to listen to it. At the moment this is completely unclear: why watch this video and not that one? And when I’ve watched the video, what the hell am I supposed to do anyway? What if, as with most creative expression, the meaning or ‘message’ is submerged – who does the interpreting? And what happens if some sections of society find themselves edited out? The pessimists also assume that this information will find enough status out there in the ether for it to gather enough meaning, to completely draw young people away from the society around them. Generations speaking in different languages could find themselves estranged from each other.
Second, they assume that what young people express is what they are (i.e. individualistic). They shouldn’t.
The real story is not about what young people are expressing, but how they are able to express things. Not what they say they are, but how they become what they are. Focussing on the expression itself leads both the optimists and pessimists to read young people’s production and exchange of audio-visual media as part of the continual elevation of the individual over society. But this overlooks the processes and interactions that young people have to go through to create and distribute media. Far from contributing to the fragmentation of young people’s identities it is equally plausible that this is contributing to the growth and ease with which young people can adopt and shed multiple identities.
These are the condundrums of a democracy that is neither just participatory or representative, but expressive too.
Democracy is normally talked about in one of two ways. Firstly ‘representative democracy’ – taken to mean voting slips, elected representatives, referendums, elections and so forth. Second, ‘participatory democracy’ – the democratic culture of everyday life – so, the membership of community groups, affiliations, associations; the governance of schools, streets and workplaces and the campaigning of charities, NGOs and activists. But the kind of activity we are referring to, when we describe young people producing media, doesn’t seems to automatically fit into either. That’s why it’s hard to work out the status of this information, and who accordingly should be listening to it. Ultimately it’s too participatory to simply be ‘representative’, but it is too representative to be ‘participatory’. Maybe what we are talking about here is a future where young people will seek an Expressive Democracy – a democracy where people will seek representation through media rather than just representation through the ballot box.
Richer expression changes how we relate to each other (i.e. our identities) and how power is distributed (i.e. democracy). On that basis our research questions will look at the following issues:
How expressive democracy works:
•What are the tools of expressive democracy, who is using them and how?
•What are the platforms of expression and exchange and which different groups are using them?
•Can private, individualistic digital expressions be connected up to the European public sphere?
•When does creative or cultural expression become political expression?
Expressive democracy and power
•Will a more expressive democracy simply favour those young people shout loudest?
•Could an expressive democracy compound existing inequalities between young people with access to new media and those with fewer resources? What disparities are discernable across Europe?
•What demands will a more expressive democracy place on governments and other institutions? How will decision makers become literate in sifting through a blizzard of digital information?
•Will expressive democracy concentrate power in the hands of individual young people or will it create new opportunities for collective movements?
Identities in an expressive democracy
•How does expressive democracy affect young people’s perceptions of strangers?
•Does the state have role in mediating the transfer of expressions, if so how?
•Are young people projecting several different identities through digital media, if so, what does this mean for their sense of self?
•Do new digital practices and the internet erode or enhance young people’s sense of belonging to their local area, their nation or Europe? What are the new, digital or cultural borders of Europe?