CSC: Affective Publics and Politics, an Interview with Zizi Papacharissi

Cultural Studies Colloquium 2017-2018 Interview with Zizi Papacharissi

Interview conducted by Christina Riley, Doctoral Student

The Cultural Studies PhD program’s student/faculty Colloquium series features regular presentations by prominent interdisciplinary scholars. Cultural Studies PhD candidate Christina Riley interviewed Zizi Papacharissi, who spoke on what she has called “Affective Publics.” Papacharissi’s extensive corpus of works has focused on the social and political consequences of online media.

CR: I have read David Karpff’s “Digital Politics After Trump,” where he talks about certain pivotal texts on digital media and what they would look like post-Trump, and he included your text Affective Publics. He mentions how your text and method may have shifted; for example, if we were to only focus on Twitter, then we wouldn’t have a complete analysis of how the election unfolded. Aside from his remarks, what are some of the ways that you might have changed Affective Publics post-Trump? Anything omitted, altered, highlighted?


ZP: I probably would not have written it! I saw when Dave wrote that because he posted it on Facebook and tagged me in it, and then he was over for a talk in Chicago and we had a more extensive conversation about it. I was intrigued because I had been thinking about the same thing. When I started the research that led me to the concept of affective publics, I didn’t know I would be talking about affect or that I would talk about affective news. Or that I would use the idea of affect to pull together this concept of affective publics and explain how they work. And I also started from a very different point of view… and from a very different mood. I was reading about all of these movements that we loosely and possibly incorrectly labeled the Arab Spring, and I was intrigued by them. In the US, people were viewing them as a new renaissance period for the whole Middle East and Africa region. People were trying to impose their own aspirations of democracy on these regions, which I thought was a little ironic because in the US we assume that our version of democracy is the ideal one, but it's really not, and it’s the newest one. And it's interesting for me because I grew up in Greece; I spent the first half of my life in Greece, before coming to the US. But I was caught between these two continents, so on one side I got all these narratives of ‘true’ democracy, and how this is the land where we can make that happen; then of course I have the very critical side, the European narratives that are much more reserved and come from a people who have seen many revolutions that ultimately fail. So, the movement in Egypt was intriguing to me, although I was a little bit cynical about it all, and I wasn’t really sure that if Mubarak fell that who he would be replaced with would have any lasting power or what that would ultimately be able to do for stability in the region. I was still pretty excited that in Tunisia a series of protests turned into a movement both on the ground and online. So regardless, it was all very new and very exciting. So, because you mentioned A Private Sphere, I had just gotten a Twitter account and was playing around with it and I thought it was a neat medium, and I was just using it to trade sarcastic comments back and forth with my friends and comment on the news, and then one lazy Sunday I had finished A Private Sphere, and I was just writing some book chapters for people, because I had some leftover ideas…because when you finish writing a book, you always think, I could’ve written about this or that, so I was playing with those ideas and thinking about what I would work on next. Well then there’s all of this stuff happening in Egypt, and a lot of my friends were talking about this platform called Twapperkeeper, which they had been using to download archives. And there was a buzz because Twapperkeeper was supposed to change its terms of service regarding how it worked with Twitter, so that you would no longer be able to do searches back in time when you were downloading archives. So there was this mad rush for gold from a lot of the geeks I was talking to. Comments like, ‘I went in and I downloaded this archive, so you better get in on it while it's still good.’ So, I went in and downloaded a couple of archives on Egypt. And I tried to open it on my computer, and my computer crashed. Then I went into the office and tried to open it on another computer, and that computer crashed. Then I tried it on a PC... I tried 5 or 6 different computers. I turns out I had too many tweets, and needed to download it in parts. So I went to a programmer we collaborate with and he said that I had 1.5 million tweets in there… which at the time was a lot. Now people work with millions of more tweets than that. I sit on panels with people who work with thirty million tweets, but still at that time, 1.5 million was a lot. So to fix the problem, he broke it up into different files. And I then analyzed it and starting reading them, and it was fascinating. There were all of these people talking together in real time about what was happening. It was like they were writing a novel together in real time, like a polyvocal, polyphonic text. Again, I was still partly cynical about if this was going to last, as well as hopeful about what Twitter was going to do to support all of this. So, I started from a point of excitement and then gradually advanced full circle. The work we did analyzing the Occupy movement showed us how it was possible to create openings for people to join the movement and mobilize for social change. But we also began to trace how the platform made it possible for others to hijack hashtags and de-legitimize the movement. The Teaparty movement was also taking off online, forming from the neoconservative members online. We then started examining how the alt right movement evolved online, with its own rhetoric, its own narrative, its own performativity. So, I wouldn’t change the concept of affective publics. I think it works to interpret and understand all of these different evolving movements. They all have a kind of intensity associated with them. And for all of these movements, they have these feelings of intensity which reflexively push the movement forward, even as the same intensity can entrap the publics in a state of engaged passivity. That’s what we have with #MAGA for instance. A lot of intensity in their rhetoric, but no sense of movement towards any direction. There’s a sense that there will be movement, that they’re going to make American great again, but there is no movement towards a particular direction. That hasn’t happened yet- there’s no specificity in terms of how that’s going to happen. So, it’s just affect; intensity that hasn’t morphed into a specific emotion or specific recognition; it hasn’t taken on any actualized direction. So you have people who intuitively align themselves with Trump the savior who is going to lead them in a direction that will make everything better. And, this is a very longwinded way to say that I think the concept still works, but I wouldn’t be compelled to write it from the same starting point because it was a different type of movement that inspired me. I may have written something on populism instead. And I still might write something on populism and affective publics, about the ways that political expression evolves from a hybrid set of discourses.


CR: What would be an example of such discourses that you’re interested in?


ZP: Like the whole ‘personal is political’ idea. A lot of different affective publics examples. They don’t have to do with politics. They have to do with school pride, sexuality, a stance towards parenting, etc. There are political elements, but they’re not predominately political.


CR: I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the complications between quantitative and qualitative data collection in digital environments, and the ways that these methodologies might butt heads. The prime example of what I’m describing might be seen with sentiment analysis. There’s a lot of criticism on exactly how valid it is as a research method. What might be lacking? Can it actually tell us concrete, illuminative information regarding our research object? I was wondering if you could wax poetic on your thoughts regarding sentiment analysis.


ZP: Of course it is a valid form of data collection, but like everything, it has its strengths and weaknesses, and if you are aware of those and you apply it carefully, you’re able to draw conclusions that can be quite meaningful. But you have to be careful not to over or under interpret. I think there are also ways that sentiment analysis can be overly descriptive, and that’s something that you see with a lot of the commercially-oriented packages for sentiment analysis that are available online. Some of those packages offer pathways for deeper analysis, complex analysis. I think once you start with sentiment analysis and you’re able to conduct some form of social network analysis and semantic mapping and you’re able to draw connections, then that’s where you arrive at some interesting conclusions. I don’t think we’re learning something that we didn’t already know from the past. I think we’re just looking at something with a different point of view. It’s like the lake that we were walking by earlier today- imagine what it would like if we saw it from a window in this office versus if we were to see it up close or from the opposite end. What I think is really meaningful is when you plan to combine a method or two. And generally speaking, you must ultimately use some combination of deep data and quantitative, qualitative and quantitative methods, and they must be interconnected for meaningful work to be done.


CR: I’ve got kind of a silly question now, but Twitter just lengthened their character count to 280, and I was wondering what your thoughts are on how this might change the affective accumulation that centers around Twitter?


ZP: It’s interesting because I saw that in the news, but then it got trumped by President Trump, and it wasn’t really commented on much. I saw some strong affective reactions from friends of mine who were like, ‘ok, goodbye Twitter,’ because I think a lot of the appeal of the medium is that its short. I don’t think that with doubling that character amount Twitter is going to go out of business. I think they’re trying to open up to a broader public; it’s a strategic move for them. I’m sure there’s some sort of market analysis that told them that that’s the right way to go. But Twitter is an interesting platform because before President Trump came around, it was almost dead. Its stock value was dropping. A lot of people were wondering what would happen to Twitter. There was a lack of interest in it as a medium. There was even talk back then of increasing character count to make it more appealing. And then President Trump happened, and it gave Twitter a new life. Jack Dorsey breathed a huge sigh of relief and got a nice two-year window to figure out how to continue to make it work. I don’t think it's going to draw substantially more people, but these are just speculations that I’m making. It might lend itself to PR firms that open up Twitter to advertising purposes, but as far as you or I use it for political expression, it might pull a couple of users from Reddit. Reddit also has a different connection to the dark web that Twitter doesn’t have- it’s part of the bright web. I think part of it has to do with drawing some users away from Reddit, but that won’t happen because Reddit has a distinct culture and does have that sense of community that Twitter is lacking.


CR: I feel also that the brevity and economy of Twitter … and this is pure speculation… has the potential to create a greater reaction that longer-winded commentary can’t. That was the initial draw, and I think this is also what elicits such affective reactions- this immediate, simple response to external events that we can then internalize and respond to quickly.


ZP: I think exactly yes. When you market it to the general public, that’s the draw. And young adults especially use Instagram, Snapchat, and they don’t really care about writing longer pieces. The longer form of Twitter may also cater to advertising and marketing companies more.


CR: My students all love Snapchat. And I used to really like Snapchat because it was less curated, it felt more intimate than something like IG. I also thought that it spoke to this notion of the ephemerality of the image in the digital age. But after talking with others, and particularly my students, they basically stated that they don’t even care about the image anymore. It doesn’t matter to them what pictures or video that they snap back and forth. They take pictures of the top of their desk or the back of their hand, and it's not about the content of the image, but more about the immediacy of the response.


ZP: And the ability to manipulate it maybe. It’s interesting to observe how young adults, and all adults really, grow in and out of certain media. By talking to them and observing them, I can watch these developments. I am always on airplanes or trains, and I can be a bit of a spy and look over people’s shoulders to see what they’re using and how they’re using it. They’re definitely not using Twitter. Twitter is more for the 35 and up, politically-minded and civically engaged demographic. At least for the time being.


CR: And they’re not using Facebook.


ZP: No, they’re not using Facebook.


CR: Is Facebook even relevant anymore?


ZP: I think it’s more like a social wallpaper for them. It’s ambient and always on, and it’s there so that they know about events that are happening, or where their friends are going. But for the more intimate stuff, for the close group of friends, I think it’s the group messages and Snapchat and Instagram or things that come and go like Tinder or Yik Yak.


CR: Would you say that Facebook is at this point where it's being utilized most efficiently for predominately strategic, collective organizational endeavors rather than actual displays of individual identity and/or thought dissemination and communication?


ZP: Yes, it’s the mothership. Facebook has bought many of these companies anyways. Absolutely. And many people ask me, is Facebook going to go away? I don’t think so because it’s become institutionalized- it’s at this point where every company, and any and every educational institution or organization, needs to have a Facebook or Twitter presence.


CR: Or definitely Facebook but not necessarily Twitter…


ZP: Yes exactly, it's difficult to say that all of these tens of thousands of organizations are going to drop off Facebook. So, it’s not going anywhere. And it’s not that it’s lost its relevance. It’s just that its appeal has shifted. The level of immediacy and connection that people feel with it, the centrality rather that it occupies, the space that it occupies in people’s everyday life has changed. Do you use Facebook anymore?


CR: I do, yes. I guess mostly for events though.


ZP: I use it too, but I’m mostly on Instagram.


CR: I use Instagram more now too. That’s what I mostly use.


ZP: And I follow completely different people on Instagram than I do on Facebook. I get annoyed when Facebook friends try to connect to me on IG. I have them in this separate space over there, and I want to keep them over there! I have some of my closest friends on IG, but it’s not because of that. It’s because I use Instagram it to learn about new trends in art, architecture, fashion or I follow people I admire but do not know in person.


CR: So it's not a big cadre of your closest friends on IG.


ZP: No, not at all.


CR: Do you use Twitter?


ZP: I do. I use Twitter a lot, but I do so in spurts. For example, I tweeted more during the last presidential election. It was up all the time. It was very much a second screener. But I also use it because of the work I do with journals; I share a lot of the work that we do through it. I also use it as a testing ground- that’s why I like the brevity of it. Because you can write paragraphs on something, but it all comes down to the last sentence. Like Einstein said, if you can’t explain it simply, then you haven’t understood it well enough. That’s why I like the 140 characters. So I throw an idea out there and see how people react to it, and if everyone responds to it, then I can say, ‘oh, this is relevant,’ and if no one responds to it, I’ll just go ahead and use it anyway if I like it enough! (laughs)