It is a strange sight to watch politicians working to go viral. Check out this video from the political nonprofit ACRONYM, where Alexis Magnan-Callaway — the Digital Mobilization Director of Kirsten Gillibrand’s presidential campaign — talks us through some key moments on social media.
Social media content has changed the rules of the game for getting attention in the political world. An entire industry has sprung up around going viral professionally, and politicians are putting these new rules to use for everything from promoting the Affordable Care Act to breaking Twitter’s use policy.
In a new paper out at Sociological Theory with Doug Hartmann, I (Evan) argue that part of the reason this is happening is due to new structural transformations in the public sphere. Recent changes in communication technology have created a situation where the social fields for media, politics, academia, and the economy are now much closer together. It is much easier for people who are skilled in any one of these fields to get more public attention by mixing up norms and behaviors from the other three. Thomas Medvetz called people who do this in the policy world “jugglers,” and we argue that many more people have started juggling as well.
Arm-wrestling a constituent is a long way from the Nixon-Kennedy debates, but there are institutional reasons why this shouldn’t surprise us. Juggling social capital from many fields means that social changes start to accelerate, as people can suddenly be much more successful by breaking the norms in their home fields. Politicians can get electoral gains by going viral, podcasts take off by talking to academics, and ex-policy wonks suddenly land coveted academic positions.
Another good example of this new structural transformation in action is Ziad Ahmed, a Yale undergraduate, business leader, and activist. At the core of his public persona is an interesting mix of both norm-breaking behavior and carefully curated status markers for many different social fields.
In 2017, Ahmed was accepted to Yale after writing “#BlackLivesMatter” 100 times; this was contemporaneously reported by outlets such as NBC News, CNN, Time, The Washington Post, Business Insider, HuffPost, and Mashable.
Since then, Ahmed has cultivated a long biography featuring many different meaningful status markers: his educational institution; work as the CEO of a consulting firm; founding of a diversity and inclusion organization; a Forbes “30 Under 30” recognition; Ted Talks; and more. The combination of these symbols paints a complex picture of an elite student, activist, business leader, and everyday person on social media.
Critics have called this mixture “a super-engineered avatar of corporate progressivism that would make even Mayor Pete blush.” We would say that, for better or worse, this is a new way of doing activism and advocacy that comes out of different institutional conditions in the public sphere. As different media, political, and academic fields move closer together, activists like Ahmed and viral moments like those in the Gillibrand campaign show how a much more complicated set of social institutions and practices are shaping the way we wield public influence today.
Bob Rice is a PhD student in sociology at UMass Boston. They’re interested in perceptions of authority, social movements, culture, stratification, mental health, and digital methods.Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.