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Forum 3:


Saturday, May 4, 2013
Wong Auditorium, MIT

Notions of a “public sphere” have always incited skepticism and qualification, in particular the recognition of “counterpublics” that operate inside and at the margins of consensus discourse.  Counterpublics can be spaces of political opposition – sites of resistance, civil disobedience, disruption – or spaces of play and self-fashioning, enabling the emergence of alt-, sub-, and fan cultures and alternative forms of community and identity.  How  is digital technology – and social media in particular – generating categories of identity and belonging that define themselves in opposition to established norms of personhood or community?  How do the counterpublics of the digital age differ from those of the past? 


Cristobal Garcia is assistant professor of innovation and entrepreneurship in the School of Business, P. Universidad Catolica, Chile.

Eric Gordon is a fellow at the Berkman Center at Harvard, and an associate professor in the Department of Visual and Media Arts and the director of the Engagement Game Lab at Emerson College.

Henry Jenkins is Provost’s Professor for Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Art, and Education at the University of Southern California. The founding director of MIT Comparative Media Studies, he has published 15 books including Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture (2013).

Maria San Filippo is author of The B Word: Bisexuality in Contemporary Film and Television (2013). She teaches gender studies at Harvard College.

Moderator: Noel Jackson is associate professor of literature at MIT. The author of Science and Sensation in Romantic Poetry, he has published essays in journals including ELH, MLQ, and Studies in Romanticism.


Video of Counterpublics is available.


A downloadable podcast of Counterpublics is available.


Streaming audio of Counterpublics is available.


By Katie Edgerton

Photos by Greg Peverill-Conti

[this is an edited summary, not a verbatim transcript]

Noel Jackson

Counterpublics, said moderator Noel Jackson, are "individuals and groups who appear on the margins of public discourse."

After welcoming the audience, Jackson turned the conversation over to panelist Cristobal Garcia.

Digital technologies have changed the ways that people live and work, as well as how we participate and distribute power, said Garcia. “The Internet has enabled the emergence of decentralized networks and organizations of people, Garcia argued, some of which may be classified as “counterpublics.”

"The question of counterpublics has to do with power and its distribution in society," Garcia continued. Garcia and his team have been working on a long-term analysis of political engagement in social discontent movements, from Occupy Wall Street to the Chilean Winter. Research into counterpublics is easier than ever before, he said, because digital tools have made it increasingly simple to "extract" the traces these groups leave on the web. Furthermore, the web is an important place to look to understand emerging counterpublics, because social media and other digital tools have supported the growth of these movements.

Networks of decentralized power have always existed in society, said Garcia, but recently, their creation has been accelerated by digital technologies, particularly in developing and emerging economies.

While digital technologies play an important role in the formation of counterpublics, these networks are connected both online and offline. Modern counterpublics make extensive use of social media, but they are not "placeless" and many are in fact "rooted in urban space." These networks, Garcia asserted, are both global and local at the same time. They connect with other discontented people worldwide via the Internet, but still agitate around issues specific to their specific locales.

Digitally-enabled counterpublics learn from other socially discontented groups worldwide and share symbolic connections using the Internet. These “multimodal networks” help to create a new sense of solidarity among geographically-dispersed counterpublics, said Garcia, building a collective intelligence and sense of digital togetherness.

On the local level, counterpublics often challenge the political establishment. In Chile, for instance, counterpublics are creating political parties that are beginning to rival the existing ones. These groups may also help to change social values and attitudes, he said. We can see this in recent societal shifts on issues like same sex marriage, abortion, drugs, and religion.

Henry Jenkins

Henry Jenkins described his research project on youth and politics.  As part of the study, Jenkins's team has conducted more than 200 interviews with young activists. Their subjects' politics spans a wide spectrum: Jenkins and his team have studied everyone from "fan activists," such as the Harry Potter Alliance, a group that mobilizes youth to participate in social causes using the story of Harry Potter as inspiration, to the Invisible Children network. Most famous for the KONY 2012 viral video, Invisible Children agitates for US military intervention in Uganda and has built a network of supporters online, as well as through churches and other community organizations. Jenkins's study also covers Libertarian youth, Occupy supporters, American Muslim youth, and “dreamers” — undocumented activists who support the DREAM Act, proposed legislation that provides undocumented youth raised in the United States with a path to citizenship.

Jenkins's team is working towards a definition of "participatory politics," which frames political participation as a process that can happen outside of the scope of traditional civic institutions. The high end of participating in political discourse under this framework might be making blogs, memes or other media, said Jenkins, while the low end might be circulating that media. Participatory politics, Jenkins argued, is becoming increasingly central to what politics mean in the United States.

For instance, dream activists have been very effective at using new media platforms to gain visibility, Jenkins said. Dreamers often turn cameras on themselves and frame their stories as "coming out" as undocumented. As many Americans are not aware that they know undocumented individuals, dreamers are trying to raise that awareness at tremendous risk for themselves, even in digital space. Their situation is precarious. These activists don't control the digital space or what happens to their image. Making videos puts them at risk, but it also connects them to larger counterpublics.

Many American Muslim youth have told Jenkins’s USC research team that they "don't have the option not to be political," he said. Their impulse is to tell their own story using social media, and in doing so, to show the diversity of Muslim life in America. In some senses, Jenkins said, "to be Muslim in the United States is to be political." Therefore, "normal" use of social media for this population is political, especially given the post-9/11 culture of surveillance. These young Muslim women and men, said Jenkins, have been trying to find and build a counterpublic. In the two weeks since the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15, Jenkins's team noted that the voices of young Muslims went "dead silent," demonstrating the precarious state of many counterpublics. "We have to acknowledge the risk and silencing that takes the place for young people struggling to be heard in America," concluded Jenkins.

MAria San Filippo

Panelist Maria San Filippo said that that queer counterpublics were part of her research into bisexuality. Often, San Filippo explained, bisexuality articulates itself in opposition to heteronormativity and homonormativity, or to straight and queer studies in an academic context. There is almost no space -- virtual or physical -- where the presumption is a bisexual identity, said San Filippo. Bisexuality, she argued, needs to formulate itself as a "queer counterpublic."

Queer counterpublics can also provide a useful lens on 21st century filmmaking, said San Filippo. Inexpensive digital filmmaking and distribution have been enabling for queer and female filmmakers, increasing the visibility of alternative sexualities and relationships in films. However, she said, the question remained as to how "we can reconcile the potential of a queer counter public with capitalist forces." Often, San Filippo noted, alternative and independent films are financed by media comglomerates.  In this way, these films’ depiction of non-normative sexualities is enabled through big capital.

Conglomerates are also increasingly shaping spaces of public discussion, said San Filippo. For instance, AfterEllen.com is the premier website where queer women talk about media representations of queer women. The site was bought in 2006 by the gay-themed cable TV channel Logo, whose parent company is the media conglomerate Viacom. How does capital shape the places where queer counterpublics cohere and come into existence?  Does the involvement of big capital prevent us from thinking about queer counterpublics as true "counter" publics?

"I work a lot with governments and large institutions," said panelist Eric Gordon. How can large institutions enable the formation of counterpublics, and how might their civic engagement be made valuable?

Eric Gordon

One common argument is that civic action takes work or risk, said Gordon. In this framework, without risk, the value of collective action is questionable. So-called "clictivists," a derisive term for people who support social causes online, comes to mind. This type of activism is marginalized because there is often minimal risk to participants. That being said, governments in the United States are feeling pressure to interact with the public in the digital realm.  According to Gordon, municipal governments have a real desire to understand and hear citizens, but also huge anxiety about their capacity to do so.

Can play factor into this and be meaningful in the way that publics interact with and change institutions? he asked. Play is seen as the opposite of work, but in many ways, "play is doing the work that work can no longer do." As the Director of Emerson's Engagement Game Lab, Gordon's research centers on games for civic engagement and participation.

I see play as "very similar to participating in civic life," said Gordon. Play is self-chosen and self-directed, he said, and means are more valued than ends. Furthermore, like civic participation, it's guided by mental rules that are often non-literal and imaginative. Story is a major factor enabling play, said Gordon, and you can also see narratives motivating groups to take civic action -- examples include the Harry Potter Alliance Jenkins mentioned, or, in some respects, the Tea Party Movement, which has fixed on a specific narrative about the United States and its history. 

Most of my work is centers on games, said Gordon. I make games and work with local governments to use games as a mechanism to frame the act of play as civic engagement. Through play, Gordon hopes to shift civic action away from the grand-scale aspirations to create sweeping social change to micro-group formations focused on targeted issues where meaningful progress can be made. Games are also a way to open channels of communication between governments and counterpublics.

To what degree do you see a counterpublic as different from a specialized public or niche community? asked Jackson. Do niche groups “count” as counterpublics?

Jenkins answered using an anecdote. There was a panel on digital social movements at the MIT Futures of Entertainment conference last November, he said, and a few of the leaders of the Harry Potter Alliance and the young libertarians that his USC research group studied sat on the panel. When it came time for the question and answer period, an audience member asked if the panelists identified as activists. Everyone on the panel said no, Jenkins observed, distancing themselves from the term “activist.”

At Transmedia Hollywood, the Futures of Entertainment’s west coast sister conference, some of the dreamers and Muslim youth Jenkins group worked with sat on a similar panel. When they were asked the same question, they said, “How could we not be activists?” According to Jenkins, the panelists said that their identity was — by definition — politicized. Only the privileged have the option to opt out of being an activist, said Jenkins. Many people are fighting to be visible and to solidify their own ranks. Those people are counterpublics.

For counterpublics, the process of becoming visible is fraught with risk, said Jackson. Can a counterpublic be defined by its consciousness as a marginal community?

Maria San Filippo (left) and Henry Jenkins

It’s been theorized that counterpublics are performative, said San Filippo. In performing their identities, many counterpublics are helping to spread the discourse that they want to disseminate. The importance of the term and the concept of counterpublics is that it allows us to question what the aims and value of discourse that these groups spread. Is the discourse self-aware? Is it oppositional or transformative? Counterpublics can serve as a way of questioning the boundaries and objectives of alternative discourse.

Gordon and Garcia spoke a lot about forms of political resistance and play, observed Jackson, which may have some overlap. What is relationship between play and resistance?

Play allows for movement within identity and categories, said Gordon. What I've found in ethnographic work with players is that when people act within a game, it is critical to understand who their audience is. Sometimes youth understand that they are talking to power and they act accordingly. But most often they see themselves as talking to their peers — their fellow players.

In this instance, the groups are not performing for an outside entity, said Gordon. They are performing for themselves. Play is powerful because it allows people to go back and forth between these different modes. They can move from talking a small group of peers to governments and other powerful institutions.

Furthermore, counterpublics use play to visualize their identities, said Garcia. In this way, different tactics of performance can help counterpublics constitute new identities. Historically, play and performance have been key elements in creating the shared identity necessary to constitute a counterpublic.

Play is also very important in political participation, said Jenkins. The USC study started with the Harry Potter Alliance, he said, “and we expected to see play there.” But as the researchers moved further away from fan culture, they still saw evidence of humor and play. For instance, the dreamers make playful reference to comic book heroes, specifically Superman — who they joked was the original undocumented immigrant. When did Superman become an American, they asked. American Muslim Youth use playful humor as well, co-opting the term “Muslim Rage,” and using it to comment on mundane occurrences — for instance, being angry that no one could see a great hair day under a hijab.

This playful referential humor is characteristic of a whole generational style of politics, said Jenkins. Play and fiction-making seem to be how the current generation of young adults expresses themselves.

Do you find that the efforts to track, quantify and visualize counter publics have brought about an increased risk of visibility to certain counterpublic groups? asked Jackson.

Cristobal Garcia

Yes, said Garcia, but we also live in an increasingly transparent world, and those are the rules of the game we have right now. If you are trying to influence public discourse, at one point you must become public.

Audience Question and Answer

How do institutions respond to the counterpublics you describe, asked an audience member. Do they see them as networks of potential supporters?

Gordon: I’ll start with an anecdote about how institutions responded to counterpublics prior to digital networks. I’ve worked with local officials who know the activists who will only show up to a given public meeting. The officials will try to address their complaints before they get access to a microphone. Those same municipal officials today can track discontent on social networking platforms like Twitter. What is the potential here? Is it that officials can respond to discontent? Or ignore it more efficiently? Institutions have anxiety about receiving discontent. They put a wall up, and people won't admit that they look at Tweets or Facebook posts, for instance, because they don't yet have a meaningful way to respond.

This works similarly with creative content production, noted San Filippo. She was part of the Twitter campaign to save the HBO series Enlightened from cancellation. “We failed,” San Filippo said, but she said that HBO was monitoring the Twitter campaign as potentially meaningful and monetizable to them.

Can counterpublics be aggregated into an alliance of discontented groups? asked an audience member. Is there a way to combine the idea of counterpublics with the seminal concept of the public sphere as articulated by German sociologist Jürgen Habermas? Can we create a “public sphere” comprised of sympathetic counterpublics?

That’s a fascinating question, said San Filippo, but there’s always going to be some sort of resistance against established power. Therefore, there will always be a force preventing consensus. Counterpublics may generate a counterpublic of their own, she said. There’s always something more counter to the counter.

I’d like to flip this conversation into a historical context, said an audience member. Counterpublics speak to a much longer, pre-digital tradition of groups responding to disempowerment. What gives rise to counterpublics that come together as a coherent social voice? And how can we listen and understand these voices today?

This is something I struggle with a lot, said Gordon. There's always cohesion found at some point in group formation, but the qualitative difference with counterpublics is that the building blocks of that message can come from decentered and disaggregated origins. That being said, mentors, teachers, experts still exist in these decentralized conterpublics; they’re just located differently from traditional voices of authority.

Counterpublics are not a primarily digital phenomenon, said Jenkins, but many people brand and perhaps dismiss their work as “digital” activism. Martin Luther King Jr. used the telephone to organize, but his work was never reduced to telephone activism. People work across every available platform and across whatever media are available to them. Moreover, these loose counterpublic networks don’t share a centralized message. That was the strength and limitation of a movement like Occupy Wall Street. The problem here isn't a shortage of voices; it is finding consensus and solidarity across all those voices. At times, the decentralized nature of the group results in incoherence.

An audience member noted that Jenkins had mentioned that the many young members of the American Muslim community went silent after the attack on the Boston Marathon and its aftermath. Why did he think that was the case, and how might we encourage this community to speak up?

It’s difficult to know why people go quiet, said Jenkins, but anxieties about our surveillance culture are omnipresent, particularly in the Muslim community. It’s also hard for people to know what comments are appropriate. What would you say to a person who says they want to block all Muslim students hoping to get an education in the United States? It’s difficult to engage in a meaningful way. Time needs to pass before more substantive conversations can take place. The best we can all do now is to show more support for the Muslim community during this time, and to be aware that many people feel deeply intimidated.