From online third spaces to political action: Everyday political talk and civic engagement in times of austerity

This source preferred by Dan Jackson

Authors: Wright, S., Graham, T. and Jackson, D.

Start date: 12 November 2014

This paper examines how the global economic crisis is negotiated in online everyday talk. We ask whether and how the economic crisis disrupted the flows of everyday conversation, and examine the dynamics of these exchanges in the context of wider questions of citizenship, identity and political mobilization. Ever since the advent of the Internet, communication scholars have debated its potential to facilitate and support public deliberation as a means of revitalizing and extending the public sphere (e.g. Coleman and Blumler 2009). However, much of the research has focused explicitly on political online spaces: party webpages, political forums, e-democracy projects and so on. Whilst much has been learned, we argue that there is more to be gained by investigating how politics emerges in everyday discussions – discussions about television, relationships, personal finance, etc. Thus, we take forward a new agenda for online deliberation (Wright, 2012a) and focus on online ‘third spaces’ (Oldenburg, 1989) – formally non-political online discussion spaces where political talk emerges (Wright, 2012b). We thus privilege the holistic, the embedded and the role of politics in the individual lifeworld. Moreover, third spaces are well positioned to reflect the impact of austerity, allowing us to see the extent to which austerity penetrated everyday life, and to monitor how online communities negotiated this. Research that has moved beyond political spaces (e.g. Graham and Harju, 2011; Van Zoonen, 2007) focuses primarily on the quality and nature of political talk. While this provides us with important insight, it tells us little however about the extent to which such talk contributes to meaningful political action. Does engaging in political talk within such spaces support movement towards participation in the formal political process? We draw upon a longitudinal qualitative content analyse of three popular, general interest UK-based forums over the course of four years (2010-3): www.netmums.com, www.digitalspy.com and www.moneysavingexpert.com. They are among the most popular forums in the UK and cover salient aspects of contemporary culture, consumption, media and family, and as such, were selected to offer a broad representation of online everyday conversations. Our research, which consisted of a qualitative content analysis of 20,384 posts taken from 150 threads, focused on how austerity penetrated everyday life and to what extent this led to (calls for and the organizing of) political action. Preliminary findings suggest that such spaces were more than talking shops. From contacting MPs, organizing campaigns and creating/promoting petitions to contacting the news media and boycotting, more than half of threads led to some form of political action. Participants were not only using such spaces as places to organize and promote political action, but intriguingly it was the dynamics of those threads that started off as non-political rather than political, which were more likely to lead to political action. We also identified ‘other types’ of action: the forums were often used to support private actions (orientated towards personal needs) and moved beyond simply debating the issues, but rather developed into policy proposal talk: a space where participants constructed and developed alternative policy proposals.

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