21st century writing | 21st century approaches

Digital Media and the Global Contemporary

Sarah Kirpekar-Sauer (Edinburgh Napier University)

Broadly speaking, the early twenty-first century is both increasingly global and increasingly shaped by digital technology. To examine the way digital media functions in conjunction with globalisation, I want to first consider Roland Robertson’s “glocalisation” theory. In his 2012 article “Globalisation or glocalisation” he argues for a reconsideration of the concept of globalisation, stating that the global is produced in combination with, rather than opposition to the local. Robertson writes that “globalisation has involved the reconstruction, in a sense the production, of ‘home’, ‘community’ and ‘locality’ ” and “has involved the simultaneity […] of what are conventionally called the global and the local” (196). This highlights his view that local identities and communities are constructed in relation to global dynamics, and he proposes glocalisation as a revision of globalisation which takes the production of locality into account (199). Glocalisation then covers both globalising forces and the “localising” reactions to it, such as opposition to global integration, xenophobia or a merging and integration of cultures.

Following Robertson’s concept of glocalisation, I contend that digital technology and social media is co-constituted with the global and that the contemporary moment is defined by interactions between the global and the digital, which, in turn, shape social relations. These interactions can take the form of a plurality of global voices and perspectives online, a homogenised global culture, as well as a retreat into local culture and identity. This article outlines key theoretical contexts in relation to the global contemporary, before examining the meeting point of the digital and the global, in the context of the ongoing refugee-crisis and how digital and social media shapes the way glocalisation is experienced in contemporary culture. Digital media has a dual dimension: it can provide a voice to a greater diversity of people, as well as reproducing the social power structures of global capitalism, and this duality is evident in the online reactions to the crisis.

The refugee crisis has inspired messages of xenophobia as well as welcome.
Photo by Alan Denney, under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 License
The Global Contemporary

John Rajchman writes that “the question ‘what is contemporary?’ is now inseparable from another—’what is global?’ ” (Rajchman qtd. in Erber 29), but what does this contemporary globalisation look like? Rajchman’s assertion echoes Fredric Jameson’s argument that one “fundamental meaning of modernity […] is that of worldwide capitalism” (12). Jameson ties the notion of the global to capitalism, arguing that capitalism goes hand in hand with standardisation, thereby creating a homogenous modernity. Capitalism certainly does tend towards global standardisation, but it also produces global inequality and unevenness. The Marxist theory of “combined and uneven development”, which sees societies as developing through interactions with other societies, presents a useful way of thinking about contemporary globalisation. Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nişancioğlu (2015) discuss this idea of “developmental variations both within and between societies” which “interactively coexist” (44, 48), and highlight the interactive aspect, arguing that the “less-developed” societies also influence the “more-developed” (46). For them, combined and uneven development posits a world, which is unequal in social relations within and between societies, but also where the flow of influence comes from “less-developed” nations, or what the Warwick Research Collective calls “peripheral” societies (16) as well as the “more-developed” ones. In Robertson’s terms, the “local” in differentially-developed societies interact and shape each other and blend with global forces. The combined force of capitalist globalisation leads to increasing homogenisation and standardisation, but the theory of combined and uneven development points towards a more complicated picture of mutual influences.

This is also represented in the notion of alternative contemporaneities, which is further complicated by digital and social media. Digital technology has affected the contemporary to the extent where it is changing the way we communicate, as well as how we constitute our identities as citizens in a global world. In Literature and the Global Contemporary (2017), Sarah Brouilette, et al. examine the effect of neoliberal digital innovations, such as Snapchat, on the present moment, suggesting that this particular form of social media risks homogenizing our present, through a focus on immediacy and individuality (xxi-xxii). While critical of this tendency, they argue that the contemporary moment is defined by “multiple and competing temporalities” (xvi), viewing contemporaneity as the collective experience of the present and the awareness of others living through a different experience, referencing the “plural, heterogeneous and contested temporality” and the “conflicted and uneven development” (xvi, xx) of global literatures. Further, Brouilette et al. argue that this unevenness is connected to “alternative visions” of the “contemporary moment” (xix), and that the contemporary world contains a plurality of experiences; this plurality is both present in and heightened by digital media, as a space in which marginalised voices, like those of refugees, can gain a platform. Despite the instantaneity of much social media, which can collapse time and difference, it is also a space of multiplicity, by virtue of its accessibility for a large part of the world’s population. While the “powerful structures” (xxix) of the literary publishing industry may hinder the establishment of a diverse global literary field, and the internet is not free of society’s power structures, it does provide the opportunity for a much wider range of voices to be heard, for example those of refugees.

Digital Globalisation and Glocal Identities

The mutually interactive processes described by Anievas and Nişancioğlu are reflected in the way digital media facilitates glocalisation. Although Robertson addresses digital communication in his writing, building on this and looking at the modern operation of social media provides an insight into how contemporary global identities are constituted in relation to their locality. Robertson similarly discusses how global capitalism can create local identity formations by “inventing” or strengthening nationality or ethnicity-based consumer traditions (194).  He addresses the “discourse of cultural imperialism” arguing that although there is a huge flow of culture and media from the West, local communities absorb this culture in different ways and that “seemingly ‘national’ symbolic resources” – such as Shakespeare – have become “increasingly available for differentiated global interpretation and consumption.” (203) Although local communities do incorporate cultural artefacts in different ways, the global prevalence and knowledge of a largely male, white and western canon of culture, of which Shakespeare is one example, demonstrates how western media still largely permeates global culture, despite being incorporated into local cultures.

What is more, in line with the idea of combined and uneven development, Robertson also discusses how “much of global ‘mass culture’ is in fact impregnated with ‘Third World’ ideas, styles and genres concerning religion, music, art, cooking and so on.” (203) The history of British imperialism means that, for example, Indian food has long been a staple part of British culture, and this phenomenon is accelerated by digital media, as evidenced by the increasing popularity of Instagram accounts dedicated to Henna, and the popularity of yoga and meditation, for example. While, as Robertson notes, the flow of culture is dependent on power, there is also an increasing flow from the periphery, and social media facilitates this. This is somewhat complicated by the capitalist power structures which operate both in the production of technology and operation of social media platforms. Tech-industries and the individual use of digital technology and social media is dependent on vulnerable global workers, whose exploitation is overshadowed by the continuous flood of new digital technology.[1] Social media platforms facilitate global diversity, but the influx of global culture is also motivated by capitalism, and often operates in the form of a commodification of culture, reinforcing rather than subverting cultural inequality (hooks 367). While digital media connects individuals across the globe and can facilitate the emergence of a plurality of marginalised voices, it also inadvertently exploits these vulnerable communities.

Despite this, social media allows geographically distant communities to come into contact with each other and exchange experiences, as well as providing marginalised communities with a voice. Specifically, social media transforms the way glocalisation is experienced, as it provides a space where the global can enter the local. It is not just the flow of culture or ideas, but the way in which social media allows identities to move virtually, providing a space where people from different cultures can meet and exchange stories, without any physical migration. Rob Cover discusses the formation of identity in relation to digital media and globalisation, arguing that “exposure to otherness here is the key to how subjectivity and selfhood are altered in the context of globalisation” (142). Cover discusses the way that identities constituted by the “local, the regional, and the global […] can produce internal conflicts and negativity as well as highly positive, complex, and fruitful selves” (143). This “exposure to otherness” is occurring to a greater extent and far more easily through the use of digital and social media, and the interpersonal relations and reactions to this are both accepting and oppositional.

Digital Media and the Refugee Crisis

The discourse surrounding the refugee crisis is a further example of the way in which social and digital media facilitate glocalisation. As Daniel Trilling points out, the so-called refugee crisis is not an event which “began in 2015 and ended the following year”, although in popular media this is often how it has been viewed (n.p). The media coverage of the increasing number of refugees led to reactionary and sometimes racist or xenophobic responses as well as a sympathetic outcry in the public; notably without any or with limited local engagement with refugees by most members of the public. For many citizens of western countries, the refugee crisis is an event occurring almost purely in the media, which makes the various reactions to it an acute example of how digital media changes the lived reality of glocalisation processes. ‘Security’-oriented government policies aside, conservative public responses to the refugee crisis are to some extent both a reaction to something experienced through media, as well as to the previous negative reactions which easily spread on social media and can lead to fear-mongering.  Leudar et al. (2008) note that western media’s portrayal of immigrants is largely negative, and immigration largely presented as a threat (188). Further, according to Leudar et al., due to the skewed spectre of voices in the discourse around immigration: refugees rarely get the opportunity to construct their own identities (188). While digital and social media is a place where regressive reactions to the global can be reinforced, it also carries the potential to change the discourse around refugees, by providing a space for self-articulation.

The website for the TimePeace app explains its mission of integration and features a video with its users. Screenshot from TimePeace website. Use complies with fair-dealing conventions.

Conversely, technology’s positive role during the refugee crisis is particularly evident in the emergence of a variety of apps intended to help refugees, demonstrating digital media’s relationship to glocalisation. The “TimePeace” app focuses on refugees who have arrived in their adopted country and aims to help “build a life from scratch”. Their mission statement is “to create more opportunities for refugees, asylum seekers and local citizens to meet, share skills and do activities together”, and additionally, as their website states, the app is being positioned as a symbol of a progressive and inclusive movement: “This is much more than just an app – TimePeace embodies a movement that strives towards an integrated, diverse society” (TimePeace, n.p.). The app’s users indicate one or more skills that they are able to teach and one that they would like to learn, and the app facilitates the exchange of these, with skills ranging from cooking, various language lessons, IT skills or legal advice, to playing an instrument. [2] The members and volunteers also organise community events with refugees and hosts. In this way, the app encourages integration and the exposure to “otherness”, which Cover discusses, thereby facilitating the possibility to refigure identities in a glocal context. The app facilitates real-life meetings and engagements between locals and refugees, creating a safe and organised environment for cultural exchange; this exchange of skills and stories establishes a co-constitution of global and local identities, by providing refugees and “hosts” with a way to incorporate other cultures into their identity. This project is an example of social media actively facilitating the merging of the global and the local, in order to combat xenophobia and produce positive glocal social relations.

Another facet of digital media is the plurality of voices, as it can provide a space for alternative visions of the contemporary to be heard. This is especially important in the case of refugees, as Leudar et al. note the general lack of opportunity for refugees to represent themselves. The BBC podcast GrownUpLand discusses a wide range of topics answering listener questions every week and on every episode ‘the charming Steve Ali, a refugee from Syria now living, working (and podcasting) in the UK, helps to put it all into perspective’ by talking about his experiences as a refugee (GrownUpLand, n.p.). Ali talks about his life in Syria, fleeing and travelling across Europe and living in the Calais jungle, and through telling his story and perspective contributes to shifting the overall narrative around refugees.[3] While this is a BBC radio programme it is also freely available to anyone with a smartphone through various podcast apps. This means it has the possibility to be widely disseminated and engaged with, creating awareness of different global experiences of the contemporary.

However, digital media’s coverage and reaction to the refugee crisis has another facet, as the “click-bait” aspect of much social media can lead to a mostly surface-level engagement with the issue, as well as fear-mongering. Michael Segalov discusses the “outrage” culture seen on much social media in relation to the Huddersfield video and the picture of the drowned Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi. He points out that finding a lasting solution to xenophobia and immigration policies, is much harder than “pointing at stories on social media that pull on all of our heartstrings” in order to create empathy (Segalov, n.p.). The photo of Kurdi, which was widely circulated on all social media, is an example of how intense focus on a news item on social media can lead to increasing awareness and empathy, but at the same time, for the majority it is a surface-level outrage. It reveals a public obsession with “tragedy porn”, and shows that social media can bring increased, but short-lived attention to issues, which are largely forgotten when public consciousness quickly moves on. 

The photo of Alan Kurdi became such a part of public consciousness, reproductions of it became a way to express outrage over the crisis. Photo by Paul Lenz under a CC BY-SA 3.0 License.

While Trilling states that “public outcry over the photograph of [Kurdi], that circulated in international media, pressured the British government into expanding a scheme to resettle Syrian refugees” (n.p), it has not had any lasting change in the policies or attitudes prevalent in the debate around the refugee crisis.[4] Trilling addresses this aspect of modern media arguing that “media coverage that jumps from one flashpoint of a crisis to another can neglect to examine underlying causes” and pointing out that “the stories we consume are, for the most part, commodities produced by profit-making companies” (Trilling, n.p.). Significantly, social media platforms are operated by corporations, with the power to moderate content and thus the power to decide which information is shared globally. Social media is also for many the first, and sometimes only, source of news, leading to a consumption of news that is often entirely made out of headlines, or character-confined tweets, which limits the ability for nuanced reflection or discussion around issues.

Despite the limited nuance of social media coverage, the digital is closely intertwined with the global in the sense that it can distribute global experiences into local communities. At the start of this essay I argued that the contemporary moment is defined by the way the global and digital interact and shape human relations. The examples above reveal the ways in which social media reproduces the process of glocalisation, of the global and the local meeting and of the mixed responses to encounters with ‘otherness’, becoming a space of distinct and separate reactions to globalisation.

Kirpekar-Sauer, Sarah. “Digital Media and the Global Contemporary.”Alluvium 7.1 (2019), n.pag. Web. 22 February 2019.  https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v6.7.05.

Contributor Attribution:

Sarah Kirpekar-Sauer is a third-year student of a BA hons in English and Film at Edinburgh Napier University. Her interests include the history of queer fiction, urban spaces in literature, and post-colonial studies.  She is currently working on original fiction projects. 

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Works Cited:

Anievas, Alexander and Kerem Nişancioğlu. How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism. London: Pluto Press, 2015, 43–63.  https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt183pb6f.7

Brouilette, Sarah, et al. Literature and the Global Contemporary. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2017.

Cover, Rob. Digital Identities: Creating and Communicating the Online Self. Oxford: Academic Press: Oxford, 2016, 141–182.

Dinnen, Zara. The Digital Banal: New Media and American Literature and Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018, pp. 1–18.

Dinnen, Zara. “(The) Digital.” The Routledge Companion to Twenty-First Century Literary Fiction. Eds. Daniel O’Gorman and Robert Eaglestone. Abingdon: Routledge, 2019, 213–224.

Erber, Pedro. “Contemporaneity and its Discontents.” Diacritics, 50.1 (2013), 28–49.

British Broadcasting Corporation. “GrownUpLand.” 2019. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05ys9yl/episodes/downloads

hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992.

Jameson, Fredric. A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present. London: Verso, 2012, 1–13.

Leudar, Ivan, et al. “Hostility Themes in Media, Community and Refugee Narratives.” Discourse and Society, 19.2 (2008), 187–221. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/42889189.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A0136fa3428bac0a047f9cf929b7c738f

Robertson, Roland, “Globalisation or Glocalisation.” Journal of International Communication, 18.2 (2012), 191–208. doi.org/10.1080/13216597.2012.709925

Segalov, Michael. “The Huddersfield video outrages us. But refugees need more than that.” The Guardian, 29 Nov. 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/29/refugees-uk-social-media-huddersfield-xenophobia

TimePeace. https://www.timepeaceapp.org

Trilling, Daniel, “5 myths about the refugee crisis.” The Guardian, 5 June 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/jun/05/five-myths-about-the-refugee-crisis


[1] See Dinnen (2018); Dinnen (2019).

[2] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OF4bkuRsOrI

[3] See https://www.independent.co.uk/topic/calais-jungle

[4] It is worth noting that a fundraiser was set up for Jamal, the bullied boy in the Huddersfield video, which raised £150,000: https://www.gofundme.com/jamal-from-huddersfield-bullied-at-school

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