Data Publics: Urban Protest, Analytics and the Courts

Article by Anthony McCosker and Timothy Graham in MC Journal: “There are many examples globally of the use of social media to engage publics in battles over urban development or similar issues (e.g. Fredericks and Foth). Some have asked how social media might be better used by neighborhood organisations to mobilise protest and save historic buildings, cultural landmarks or urban sites (Johnson and Halegoua). And we can only note here the wealth of research literature on social movements, protest and social media. To emphasise Gerbaudo’s point, drawing on Mattoni, we “need to account for how exactly the use of these media reshapes the ‘repertoire of communication’ of contemporary movements and affects the experience of participants” (2). For us, this also means better understanding the role that social data plays in both aiding and reshaping urban protest or arming third sector groups with evidence useful in social institutions such as the courts.

New modes of digital engagement enable forms of distributed digital citizenship, which Meikle sees as the creative political relationships that form through exercising rights and responsibilities. Associated with these practices is the transition from sanctioned, simple discursive forms of social protest in petitions, to new indicators of social engagement in more nuanced social media data and the more interactive forms of online petition platforms like or GetUp (Halpin et al.). These technical forms code publics in specific ways that have implications for contemporary protest action. That is, they provide the operational systems and instructions that shape social actions and relationships for protest purposes (McCosker and Milne).

All protest and social movements are underwritten by explicit or implicit concepts of participatory publics as these are shaped, enhanced, or threatened by communication technologies. But participatory protest publics are uneven, and as Kelty asks: “What about all the people who are neither protesters nor Twitter users? In the broadest possible sense this ‘General Public’ cannot be said to exist as an actual entity, but only as a kind of virtual entity” (27). Kelty is pointing to the porous boundary between a general public and an organised public, or formal enterprise, as a reminder that we cannot take for granted representations of a public, or the public as a given, in relation to Like or follower data for instance.

If carefully gauged, the concept of data publics can be useful. To start with, the notions of publics and publicness are notoriously slippery. Baym and boyd explore the differences between these two terms, and the way social media reconfigures what “public” is. Does a Comment or a Like on a Facebook Page connect an individual sufficiently to an issues-public? As far back as the 1930s, John Dewey was seeking a pragmatic approach to similar questions regarding human association and the pluralistic space of “the public”. For Dewey, “the machine age has so enormously expanded, multiplied, intensified and complicated the scope of the indirect consequences [of human association] that the resultant public cannot identify itself” (157). To what extent, then, can we use data to constitute a public in relation to social protest in the age of data analytics?

There are numerous well formulated approaches to studying publics in relation to social media and social networks. Social network analysis (SNA) determines publics, or communities, through links, ties and clustering, by measuring and mapping those connections and to an extent assuming that they constitute some form of sociality. Networked publics (Ito, 6) are understood as an outcome of social media platforms and practices in the use of new digital media authoring and distribution tools or platforms and the particular actions, relationships or modes of communication they afford, to use James Gibson’s sense of that term. “Publics can be reactors, (re)makers and (re)distributors, engaging in shared culture and knowledge through discourse and social exchange as well as through acts of media reception” (Ito 6). Hashtags, for example, facilitate connectivity and visibility and aid in the formation and “coordination of ad hoc issue publics” (Bruns and Burgess 3). Gray et al., following Ruppert, argue that “data publics are constituted by dynamic, heterogeneous arrangements of actors mobilised around data infrastructures, sometimes figuring as part of them, sometimes emerging as their effect”. The individuals of data publics are neither subjugated by the logics and metrics of digital platforms and data structures, nor simply sovereign agents empowered by the expressive potential of aggregated data (Gray et al.).

Data publics are more than just aggregates of individual data points or connections. They are inherently unstable, dynamic (despite static analysis and visualisations), or vibrant, and ephemeral. We emphasise three key elements of active data publics. First, to be more than an aggregate of individual items, a data public needs to be consequential (in Dewey’s sense of issues or problem-oriented). Second, sufficient connection is visible over time. Third, affective or emotional activity is apparent in relation to events that lend coherence to the public and its prevailing sentiment. To these, we add critical attention to the affordising processes – or the deliberate and incidental effects of datafication and analysis, in the capacities for data collection and processing in order to produce particular analytical outcomes, and the data literacies these require. We return to the latter after elaborating on the Save the Palace case….(More)”.