The attention economy and the politics of language

My latest is for The Common Reader, a new journal you should read. Their debut issue is on the politics of language, and my article is on online protest in Uzbekistan. What happens when you tweet a protest and no one hears you?

The attention economy is a quantitative economy. It is measured in hits, clicks, likes and follows. It is an affirmative economy, in which the absence of affirmation is viewed as failure. To be ignored is to be invisible, to be invisible is not to be. What is viral, here, does not infect but is infectious. What can be counted is mistaken for what counts.

The constraints Malohat and Saodat faced were in part constraints of language. But they were mostly constraints of power.

Malohat and Saodat were ignored not only because they spoke Uzbek, but because they are Uzbek. The desire to understand what is happening in Uzbekistan is related to one’s interest in Uzbekistan. One’s interest in Uzbekistan is determined by one’s ability to obtain information about Uzbekistan. The ability to obtain information about Uzbekistan is bound by the ability to understand the Uzbek language and hear from Uzbeks who are able to communicate freely—which, both on the internet and on the ground in Uzbekistan, they are not allowed to do.

In May 2005, the government of Uzbekistan shot to death roughly 800 people gathered at a political protest in the city of Andijon. But most Uzbek citizens did not hear about the massacre until days after it had occurred. The government cordoned off the area, blocked investigators from the scene, and expelled foreign media and local reporters, but not before a few had managed to get the stories online.

Many Uzbeks told me the first time they heard about Andijon was through an article on the internet. Controversial political information travels out of Uzbekistan through word of mouth, is published online by Uzbeks abroad, and is circulated back through word of mouth again.

In a constricted media and political environment, it is not surprising that the struggle of two Uzbek journalists failed to broadly resonate. But it is misleading to think this means they did not matter—for what “matters” is not a matter to be objectively decided by those outside the story. The quantitative evaluation of digital activism obscures the respective limitations, and goals, of participants. “Public interest” is less a measure of what the public is interested in than what the public is able to see—but before that, it is a measure of who gets to be designated “the public.”

Authoritarian states are spaces where public sentiment is kept private while private conversations are monitored. In online spaces, everything is potentially public, and so lack of public attention is construed in evaluative terms: “success,” “failure.” It is a surface reading of the impenetrable—the silent reader, the talk behind the scenes. What seems to be overlooked is often being quietly looked over.

Activists in authoritarian states write the archives of their unheralded actions. Where outsiders hear the sound of silence, their countrymen hear the stifled cry.

Read the full article Can Minor Languages Make Revolution? at The Common Reader

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