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Saturday, July 21, 2012

Tea Time in the Digital Age: Self-Produced Media and the Tea Party Movement

The Tea Party Movement in the contemporary United States thrives on new media technologies. Despite its activists'  apparent inclination toward the past—demonstrated by a predilection for three-cornered hats and petticoats, a veneration of the U.S. Constitution and other founding documents, and the popular slogan“I want my America back"—the movement is actually at the forefront of digital and political modernity. Utilizing social media and a variety of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has allowed the movement to organize, mobilize, and share information much more broadly and rapidly than could have been possible several years ago. This has given rise to a novel organizational structural formation that is neither purely hierarchical nor wholly grassroots, neither truly local nor entirely national in scope. Based on ethnographic fieldwork among Tea Party activists in Connecticut, my upcoming NEASA talk will explore the modes and meanings of digital media production and its impact on the movement as a whole.

Tea Party activists are highly prolific in producing and sharing digital information, including documentation, commentary, and analysis of their own rallies and other events. The production of digital self-mediation is often instantaneous, as activists post photographs, videos, and commentary online with their phones while the rallies are still going on. One Connecticut activist in particular has taken it upon himself to document and publicize almost everything that Tea Party activists have done throughout the state since the movement began in early 2009. His YouTube channel has become a massive digital video archive composed of almost 1,400 videos, with more added every week. Another has begun producing his own TV show which streams live on his website every Thursday night. Other forms of self-produced digital media include analytical or investigative essays posted on personal blogs and shared on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

But the digital revolution's centrality to the Tea Party’s emergence and continued development does not rest only on its capabilities for hyper-connectivity and enhanced communication. In a social world in which the "mainstream media" cannot be trusted—as one Tea Party interlocutor put it: “We're tired of being lied to, and were tired of being lied about”—the ability to represent themselves on such a large scale has been experienced by activists as an important mechanism of rebellion and self-empowerment. In fact, the desire for self-representation and self-empowerment are in many ways equivalent, and constitute a fundamental drive of the movement itself.

In order to better understand these processes, my NEASA talk will investigate the ways that Tea Party political subjectivity is explored and, in many ways, instantiated through media practices in the digital age. It will trace how the ongoing process of self-mediation, largely enabled by digital ICTs, is one of the primary means whereby activists consider themselves to be engaging in meaningful revolutionary action.

--Sierra Bell

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