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New media bridge personal and political


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October 26, 2010

Dr. Maria Bakardjieva is exploring how Facebook and blogs are igniting civic engagement

Dr. Maria Bakardjieva does not consider herself an unconventional researcher. She simply refuses to offer the type of sweeping generalization that traditional media like. Social media, her 
research specialty, are all about specifics.

“My research is qualitative,” she explains. “I try to interpret the meaning people give things. I try to understand from the inside.”

Bakardjieva, a professor with the Department of Communication and Culture, is investigating how social media empower citizens to raise issues and concerns not followed by mainstream media. Specifically, she is looking at blog and Facebook usage through international case studies and local focus groups.

“I’m looking for manifestations of larger concerns, not just blogs on your cat or the local coffee shop,” she says.

World events, politics and charities brought to the public’s attention by ordinary citizens guide Bakardjieva’s research. She is finding that what begins as a personal, even intimate, form of communication sometimes grows into a movement.

For example, in Bulgaria, Bakardjieva’s native country, an online forum for mothers called bg-mamma began as a support group for women to swap parenting advice. Users initially discussed matters such as what kind of tea to give a baby with hiccups or how involved a grandmother should be in her grandchildren’s lives.

But then the forum evolved. Mothers began discussing issues of broader concern such as the deterioration of state-funded day-care services. The bg-mamma forum mobilized the mothers into action—they protested.

“Women with strollers marched in the streets of many cities insisting to the mayor, to city council that they needed more services,” says Bakardjieva. “And they got some.”

Bakardjieva sees a triad emerging from the connections between social media, traditional media and the “city square,” a metaphor she uses to describe street protests. Ordinary citizens use social media as a platform to mobilize offline action that, in turn, 
prompts traditional media coverage that cumulates into broad 
civic engagement and political change.

“What I find interesting is that something on the fringes can grow into a political phenomenon, erupt onto the public stage and now has to be reckoned with by politicians. In Canada, we saw an example of that in the case of the anti-prorogation Facebook group and the protests it organized.”

Bakardjieva has been studying internet communications since the ’90s. She has published multiple papers on varying cultural implications, including a book titled Internet Society: The Internet in Everyday Life.

Her passion for her work resonates in the way she describes the complexity of social media and civic engagement. “The beauty of what we [researchers] find is in the diversity.

“My goal is to give the academic community nuanced understanding of the cultural implications of social media. I also try to give the public concepts to understand their own [social media] practice.”