Diasporas in the Datasphere: Where are the Brazilians on Facebook (and Where is Inter-American Studies on the Web)?

Matthias Oppermann,

Georgetown University

Abstract

This paper argues that the success of efforts to reconfigure Inter-American studies as field of inquiry in the 21st century depends on a revision of the current intellectual value system that privileges literary print texts over all other forms of cultural expression. An integral part of such a revision is an expanded notion of literacy that recognizes digital environments as genuine sites for social interaction and cultural critique. This is necessary in order to understand how diasporic communities use social media networks that simultaneously transcend traditional territorial nation states and contribute to processes of cultural imperialism and virtual nation-building. In my conclusion, I will identity several epistemological challenges that need to be met in order to address questions of hegemony and neo-imperial developments in digital media from an Inter-American perspective.

Introduction

In order to study the Americas in an era of global digital networks and transnational cultural flows, several types of conceptual “borders” must be addressed. In much of the current scholarship on the Americas, borders function as spatial reifications of nationalist territorial epistemologies, as key discursive formations, and as political counter-paradigms. For example, Sophia McClennen has recently argued that the field of Inter-American studies must consciously resist the notion that “history and literature are bound by regional borders” and instead focus on “the ways that culture often transgresses borders, both geographic and identitarian,” in order to “put pressure on nationalist and cultural essentialist epistemes” (408-09). Thus, while borders can be addressed as generative transgressive spaces where cultures meet, intersect, and influence each other, borders can also be understood as sites of conflict, friction, separation, and exclusion, both physically and epistemologically. Building on McClennen, I want to call attention to one such border–neither regional nor national, yet equally artificial and fundamentally divisive. This border indicates a division of the methods and subject material used to study cultural production in the Americas, and it cuts right through the field of Inter-American studies: a “digital-analog divide” that separates those practitioners who have begun to collaboratively engage with digital media in teaching and research from those who tend to limit their involvement with emerging digital technologies to the use of email, Wikipedia, and Google’s search function. There may be a number of factors that contribute to the existences of this divide, among them faculty interests and skills, longstanding models of student learning and assessment that gravitate around “the paper,” as well as related academic reward structures that privilege single-author books. I do not believe that a profound skepticism about the role of digital media is unique to Inter-American studies, or that similar cultural biases do not exist in related disciplinary or interdisciplinary fields (see also Oppermann “Web” 334-35). But it seems to me that the perpetuation of a digital-analog divide will potentially undermine the Inter-American studies project in at least three ways. First, Inter-American studies scholars will severely limit their own access to an expanding range of digital cultural productions that cannot be contained in national rubrics, but–like the communication channels of migrants and diasporic communities–extend across and beyond the hemisphere. Second, a perpetuation of the digital-analog divide will further preclude the Inter-American studies community from opportunities to participate actively in, and to contribute to, emerging collaborative spaces of knowledge production that would allow them to engage with the exponentially growing amounts of data that already defy traditional disciplinary research methods and nationally organized data collections. Finally, if digital media (like weblogs or wikis) remain largely unintentional add-ons to existing curricula that primarily ask students to use one book to study another book, then these learners will not be well prepared to shape an Inter-American studies research agenda for the digital age. Thus, digital literacy must be intentionally designed for, and be understood as an integral part of hemispheric communities of learning and scholarship.

In my paper, I argue that the success of scholarly and curricular efforts to reconfigure Inter-American studies in the 21st century largely hinges on our ability to recognize digital environments as genuine sites for social interaction and cultural critique, as well as for academic inquiry and student learning. In order to overcome the digital-analog divide that separates practitioners in the field at the moment, we need to develop what Douglas Kellner has called “multiple literacies” and recognize the fundamental importance of digital media environments for the comparative study of the Americas. I will proceed in three steps: in the first part of my paper, I will show how notions of language and literacy in the field are tacitly limited to an intellectual value system that privileges literary print texts over other forms of cultural expression. It seems to me that this narrow focus has thus far prevented any serious inquiry into how migrants and members of diasporic groups negotiate cultural identities in dynamic online social networks. However, I do not believe that any digital media are inherently transnational and thus ideally suited for hemispheric communication and diasporic networking. In part two, I hope to avoid such a technological sublime and to offer a more nuanced, and complicated, assessment. I will illustrate that social media networks both transcend traditional territorial nation states and simultaneously contribute to processes of cultural imperialism and virtual nation-building. In my conclusion, I will identify a number of epistemological challenges that need to be met in order to address questions of hegemony and neo-imperial developments in digital media from an Inter-American perspective.

Part One: Inter-American Studies, Comparative Literature, and the Problem of Translation

In 2004 Latin Americanist Earl E. Fitz, one of the founding directors of the Center for the Americas at Vanderbilt University in the United States, suggested that scholars in the “emergent (and therefore disruptive) intellectual discipline” of Inter-American studies must address several problematic issues before successful programs in the field–or the field itself–could flourish (“Inter-American Studies” 13). His comments grew out of a series of faculty seminars that had preceded the founding of the Center at Vanderbilt; they were also grounded in 25 years of experience in designing and teaching Inter-American literature courses (“Inter-American Studies” 19). Fitz highlights the following five problem areas: 1) The Language Problem, 2) Programmatic Cohesion, 3) Course Coverage and Faculty Expertise, 4) Courses, New and Revised, and 5) The Inter-American Dissertation. While all of these problem areas are compelling and warrant further investigation, I would like to focus on one issue that Fitz nominates as “perhaps the greatest obstacle” Inter-American studies must confront: the “language problem” (“Inter-American Studies” 14).

At the heart of the “language problem,” according to Fitz, is that (potential) Inter-American studies practitioners “are all too often mono- (in some cases, bi-) lingual” and therefore lack the minimum requirement of linguistic competency in at least three languages (e.g. Native American languages, English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese) (14). Given the “profound linguistic diversity of our Americas,” Fitz finds it “simply unacceptable” for scholars or students to be able to work in English and Spanish only (15). Such a “binary model” (“the ‘imperialism’ of both English and Spanish”) places severe limitations on “the greater scope of the overall Inter-American initiative” (15). In Fitz’s assessment, the focus on two languages is not merely methodologically and conceptually limiting (15), but could “fatally imbalance the development of Inter-American studies as a methodologically valid field of intellectual inquiry” (16). As the principal obstacle to the progressive potential of the field, Fitz’s “language problem” is thus inextricably linked to questions of ideology, epistemology, and the disciplinary status of Inter-American studies.

However, the lack of language competency that Fitz identifies as the major impediment to the futures of Inter-American studies reveals and reaffirms another serious limitation of this field imaginary: the privileging of one type of cultural expression–literature–over everything else. This very limited notion of literacy in Inter-American studies is closely related to the “language problem,” and the solution Fitz proposes to the latter is emblematic of this bias: In order to overcome the status quo of limited linguistic competency, Fitz demands that future doctoral students be competent in at least three languages. This is, of course, a long-term curricular goal, but no adequate immediate solution to the “language problem.” Thus, in the meantime, Fitz recommends that those who are linguistically limited but would like to get involved with Inter-American studies simply use translations of the works of “great New World writers” (like Neruda or Borges whose work was translated and published widely in the United States and in Europe) rather than “remain totally ignorant” of them (15). Although well intended, this interim solution (“to use translations”) is indicative of how deeply his notion of literacy is grounded in the epistemologies of literary studies and their fairly static conception of textuality. Speaking from the position of a literary scholar at an elite institution in the US academy, Fitz’s concern about the intellectual validity of Inter-American studies is marked by a dual commitment to simultaneously expand and limit the prevailing notion of literacy: while the language requirement for future scholars is expanded to a minimum of three “New World” languages, the range of cultural expressions available for study remains limited to literary print texts. Inter-American work thus becomes synonymous with a subset of Comparative Literature scholarship (Fitz “Inter-American Studies” 26). And although I agree completely with the assessment that Inter-American studies is necessarily a multilingual project, I am concerned about calls for minimum linguistic requirements that reaffirm the center of an intellectual value system that continues to marginalize a wide range of non-literary cultural representations, including visual culture, music, dance, and other performing arts. If, as Sophia McClennen has argued, Inter-American studies is “dedicated to critically examining the ways that disciplinary knowledge has been used to support hegemony” (407), then practitioners in the field must be particularly sensitive to attempts to limit their comparative, post-national inquiries into the cultures of the Americas and their global relations to just one distinctive type of textuality. And if, according to McClennen, Inter-American studies needs to focus on “the ways that culture often transgresses borders” in order to “put pressure on nationalist and cultural essentialist epistemes” (408-09, see above), then it seems productive to think beyond the literary print text–a medium that has historically shown affinities to the nation state and nationalist paradigms.

Several emancipatory fields of inquiry have challenged the nation state as the primary frame of historical (and literary) reference long before Inter-American studies became a recognizable movement in the academy. Since the 1970s, the anti-racist and anti-sexist critiques of emerging disciplinary sub-fields and programs have brought subject matters to the fore that were central to social movements (such as injustices based on race, gender, or sexual orientation), and have effectively recovered the histories and cultural forms of expression that had been marginalized and “minoritized” in Literary Studies. In the 1970s and 1980s, these new, interdisciplinary fields of inquiry (among them African American, Chicano/a, Native American, Asian American, and Women’s/ Gender Studies) resisted inclusion into more traditional fields like English, history, or even American studies, which–due to their narrow interdisciplinary orientation around a bipolar literature/history nexus and its associated epistemologies–ignored and undervalued certain areas of inquiry. As John Carlos Rowe reminds us, many scholars in these new fields “distrusted conventional histories from which their stories had been excluded and protested that literature did not express fully the cultural vitality of their communities,” citing as one of his examples how the “tejano corridos of the Texas-Mexico borderlands combine story and song, as well as the context of their performances, in ways that cannot be matched in the private reading experience” (5). Thus, although nineteenth and twentieth century literary texts (or their translations) certainly have the capacity to crystallize many issues that are central to the Inter-American studies project, they can also serve to control, contain, distort, and misrepresent those issues.

Considering recent reconfigurations in the communication channels of cultures in the Americas, print texts do not constitute the only cultural medium that lends itself to the comparative study of the region, but are one among several means of cultural expression and communication, and–for reasons both political and practical–possibly not always the most generative sources of evidence for the hemispheric study of cultures. The “language problem,” then, points toward the multi- and post-lingual realities of Inter-American studies and the need to reconsider and reframe some of the tacit governing epistemological assumptions of the field. In the second part of my paper, I turn to the example of social networking sites in the Americas to illustrate how digital media challenge some of these assumptions.

Part Two: Why are there no Brazilians on Facebook?

Issues of language and translation are of particular relevance to Inter-American studies in the 21st century, but the meaning of the two terms needs to be broadened beyond the scope of Earl E. Fitz’ observations that I discussed in the first part of my paper. My use of the term “translation” is not limited to the translation of literary texts, but includes the translation of “all existing media into numerical data accessible for computers” (Manovich 44). Following this “translation into another format,” then, “graphics, moving images, sounds, shapes, spaces and texts become computable, i.e. simply another set of computer data” (Manovich 44, 64). According to Lev Manovich, the “ongoing computerization of culture” accomplishes a similar translation which he terms “transcoding” (64). Manovich suggests that “cultural categories and concepts are substituted, on the level of meaning and/or the language, by new ones which derive from computer’s ontology, epistemology and pragmatics” (64). If culture and computer technology mutually affect each other in the way that Manovich suggests, what does this mean for categories currently at work in Inter-American studies? It means that as a result of this process of “transcoding” (this “translation into another format”, 64), categories like community, nation, migration and diaspora are undergoing substantial reconfigurations and call for redefinitions in light of the new media. Let me illustrate this claim in the context of social networking sites in the Americas.

Though this notion may not be universally accepted, many scholars agree that diasporic groups are characterized by their “dispersion, whether voluntary or involuntary, across socio-cultural boundaries and at least one political (i.e. nation state) border (Brinkerhoff 31). Present processes of mass migrations and their associated experiences of displacement have resulted in new networks of communication through which diasporic subjects build and sustain social relationships to their (actual or imagined) home countries. In recent years, social media platforms have emerged as genuine networks of exchange and participation that allow diasporic individuals and groups to negotiate issues of cultural identity, religion, ethnicity or nationality across territorial nation states (Brinkerhoff 31). However, these social media platforms also bring into sharp relief a point Howard Reingold made almost twenty years ago: information technologies are never politically neutral. The case of the social network Facebook illustrates that processes of cultural imperialism and nation-building currently under way in digital environments have direct implications for the concepts and categories that constitute the interpretative frameworks of Inter-American studies.

In February 2009 Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of the social networking site Facebook.com, declared: “More than 175 million people use Facebook. If it were a country, it would be the sixth most populated country in the world. Our terms [of use] aren’t just a document that protect our rights; it’s the governing document for how the service is used by everyone across the world” (Zuckerberg; my emphasis). A little more than a year later, Facebook had 400 million users and surpassed Google to become the most visited website in the United States. The service has now (December 2011) more than 483 million daily active users–which would make it the third most populated “country” (Facebook “Statistics”). Users from Mexico and Argentina are among the fastest growing group on Facebook; in Latin America, the average time spent, per week, on social networking is 5.2 hours, compared to only four hours on email (TNS, October 2010). More than eighty percent of users are registered outside the United States and Canada; the website is currently available in 70 languages, and “over 300,000 users helped translate the site through the translations application” (Facebook “Statistics”). Thus, unlike Inter-American studies, Facebook really does not have “language problem” by any stretch of imagination (cf. Fitz).

As a primary site of the “ongoing computerization of culture,” Facebook is at the forefront of processes of “transcoding,” the translation of cultural communication and exchange into “simply another set of computer data” (Manovich 44, 64). However, participation in these processes is unevenly distributed among different countries. The following chart shows the “Facebook penetration” (the percent of Facebook users measured against the total population) in selected countries:
(The complete chart is available here)

Fig. 1: Facebook Penetration in Selected Countries, July 2010 (Arthur)

Several things are noteworthy here. In terms of percentage penetration the Americas are led by Canada, a country that is often neglected in research on Inter-American transnational networks and cultural flows. The United States trails 5 percentage points behind Canada, closely followed by Chile. The percentage penetration of Mexico equals that of Germany (roughly 12%). Thus, the differences in Facebook penetration among nations like Chile, Mexico, and Brazil illustrate the heterogeneity of the region, rather than the emergence of a transnational communications network that would insinuate a shared cultural identity in digital environments.

Brazil is a particularly interesting case because its penetration of 2.5 percent is so low, especially if you consider that “Brazil is the world’s eighth largest internet market and one of the fastest growing” (Rapoza). Brazilians are not only among the most active users of social networks worldwide, but also have an average of 231 social network “friends” (surpassed only by users from Malasia with 233 “friends”) (TNS). So why are there no Brazilians on Facebook? The simple explanation is that Brazilians use a different social network, called Orkut, which belongs to Google (orkut.com). They sign in to their Orkut account more times per month than the average viewer logs onto Facebook worldwide, and in 2011, the website was increasing its user numbers by around 28% each month (Rapoza).

This is not to say that Brazilian do not use Facebook. However, they use it primarily to communicate with family and friends outside of Brazil, and the “Facebook user population tends to be concentrated among wealthier Brazilians in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro” (Rapoza). The example of Brazil illustrates that the use of social networks does not quasi-automatically transcend national borders but may, as in the case of Orkut, virtually re-inscribe them. Here, one network serves primarily those users within the virtual borders of the “homeland” (90% of the page views on Orkut are viewed in Brazil), whereas the other (Facebook) serves the need to connect with contacts and communities beyond national borders, including members of the Brazilian diaspora. The fact that Brazilians use their “own” social network and have (unlike users in many other countries in the hemisphere) not yet become part of the “Facebook nation” could be read as an expression of the profound linguistic, historical, and cultural differences that–as Earl E. Fitz reminds us–seem to set Portuguese-speaking Brazil apart from Spanish America (“Comparative Approach”).

While Orkut remains an interesting case of a national social network, Facebook is already clearly the top social network in the Americas. By agreeing to the Facebook terms of use, all users from outside the United States consent to having their personal data transferred to the United States where Facebook Inc. stores this information on thousands of servers (Facebook, “Statement”; see also Oppermann, “Protocols” 446). Here, the company turns its “country’s” resources—user-generated data and social interactions—into advertising money that goes to the shareholders of Facebook Inc.; users can voice their dissent against the “Facebook Bill of Rights and Responsibilities” in virtual town hall meetings or participate in a user council, a small “representative government” that is chosen by the company but cannot be held accountable for anything (cf. Dannen). Facebook’s self-congratulatory remarks about the global reach of their terms of use thus display a notion of (trans-)national unity that is a pseudo-democratic illusion at best, a new kind of hegemony driven by user consent and the desire for constant status updates.

The members of diverse diasporic groups in the Americas that use Facebook as a communication platform for their networks of exchange and participation transcend traditional territorial nation states and simultaneously contribute to processes of cultural imperialism and virtual nation-building. Yet while “traditional” imperialism functions by exporting national interests abroad by way of expansion from center to periphery, Facebook incorporates the world along with cultural differences into the Facebook nation, thus re-nationalizing the transnational in ways that expose the companies self-image as a discrete nation that nonetheless has a global identity and mission and that renders global differences aspects of its corporate identity. Such strategies are reminiscent of earlier imperialist projects in the pursuit of commercial interests and investments, and they must be examined in Inter-American terms.

Conclusion

The various diasporic groups that have resulted from migration to, from, and within the Americas negotiate issues of cultural identity through contributions to networks of exchange and participation that exist in a variety of media. While literary productions continue to be an important medium for the study of diasporic discourses, recent contributions to Inter-American scholarship–e.g. on cinema (Pérez Melgosa), on documentary film (Raab et al.), on popular music (Raussert and Habell-Pallán), or on Carnival (Green and Sher)–have powerfully shown how a wide variety of cultural media lend themselves to the comparative and hemispheric study of the region. In contrast, a narrow focus on literary productions would continue to undervalue, marginalize, and effectively minoritize a wide range of diasporic voices and cultural expressions, particularly in the digital age.

My call to overcome the “analog-digital” divide in Inter-American scholarship does not negate the continuing existence of a very real digital-analog divide in the Americas. On the contrary, I believe that the discrepancies regarding internet access in different countries of the Americas warrant further attention and inquiry. According to the World Bank, in 2010 the number of internet users per 100 people in Brazil was 40. For the United States, this figure was 74, for Bolivia 20, for Cuba 15, for Nicaragua 10 (World Bank). There is no universally accepted definition of the term “internet user”, and the category includes a wide variety of more or less direct, fast or slow, legal or illegal ways to access the internet. Thus, there are still numerous nations where access to social media and mobile technologies are the privilege of national elites. However, as Ted Henken has recently demonstrated for the case of Cuba, even restricted access does not mean that there cannot be a vibrant blogoshere with more than a thousand blogs in 2011 (including both blogs from Cuba and Cuban “diasporic blogs), nor does this mean that social media applications like Facebook or Twitter are completely unavailable in Cuba (Henken 173; see also Venegas 172-78). Yet the question, “Where are the Cubans on Facebook?” cannot be answered without reference to conditions of unequal internet access across the Americas that illustrate the continuing power of nation-states in the age of global digital communication networks.

Digital social networks like Facebook that transcend territorial states and virtually reinscribe national configurations as states of exception may be among the most interesting transnational phenomena and the most visible arenas for the struggle over power and representation in the Americas at the moment. In order to identify hegemonic and neo-imperial developments in digital media, we need to move beyond a currently relatively monolithic model of (literary) scholarship and understand that digital media have not only blurred the boundaries between “insides” and “outsides” of nation states in the Americas, or reconfigured our core disciplinary concepts (like diaspora, nationalism, or globalization). Rather, the growing importance of digital media poses considerable epistemological challenges to the interpretative frameworks of Inter-American studies. I will limit my concluding remarks to just two of these challenges:

First, in order to adequately account for the emerging cultural repertoires of digital media, Inter-American studies has yet to develop an epistemological framework that allows for large-scale quantitative analysis and in-depth qualitative analysis. As historians, literary or cultural studies scholars, our “evidence” has thus far consisted primarily of relatively stable texts. We were trained in close reading strategies and learned to move back and forth between a relatively small number of texts, their historical/political contexts, and corresponding literary/cultural theories. The mere size of mediated cultural systems like Facebook or YouTube expose the limits of these epistemologies. On Facebook, which currently has about 125 billion “friend connections,” users generate with “an average of 3.2 billion likes or comments”–per day. During the month of October 2010, 14.8 million Mexicans viewed 1.7 billion online videos (comScore). In the same time period, Brazil had an online video-viewing audience of 33.3 million unique viewers, who viewed a total of 2.9 billion videos (comScore). As these figures make abundantly clear, we are currently witnessing the emergence of a cultural archive that challenges the traditional epistemologies of Inter-American studies on the level of scale alone.

Second, social networks are more than exponentially growing transnational archives of cultural texts. Online video platforms in particular have become genuine spaces for transnational cultural production, for the distribution and exchange of diverse knowledges, and for the performance of cultural identities. For example, when the Brazilian video blog author Paulo Cesar Siqueira performs his persona Mas Poxa Vida and addresses questions of national, cultural, or gender identity, his audience consists of several hundred thousand subscribers across the Americas (overall, his YouTube channel has been viewed more that 100 million times in the past two years). Yet the number of views or subscriptions does not even begin to open up the complexity of the cultural and political work that his online videos perform. How do members of the Brazilian diaspora use Facebook to communicate about Mas Poxa Vida’s latest video on YouTube? Is partially reposting, or “quoting,” these videos on various social media websites an act of cultural participation? What do we know about the transnational social protocols that emerge around these new genres?

The inability to answer such questions in Inter-American terms brings into sharp relief the tensions between traditional, linear narratives of cultural critique and the new media protocols of cultural production that follow the logic of the database and digital archives. As a field that is still primarily print-based, Inter-American studies is just beginning to develop a language that can accurately account for cultural objects that exist only digitally, in a database, a place that privileges ephemerality, constant re-ordering and arbitrariness over sequence and narrative. Digital archives offer unique opportunities for transnational collaboration, for sharing resources, open access publishing, and authentic pedagogies (see, e.g., the multi-institutional digital humanities project Our Americas Archive Partnership http://oaap.rice.edu; see also Levander 31). At the same time, digital archives can re-affirm the nation state as the dominant framework for the organization of knowledge, and they can limit access to information in ways that are no less economically and socially restrictive than the dissemination apparatus of print culture. Thus, we need to engage in a field-wide conversation about how Inter-American studies practitioners can better understand and shape the transformative effects that digital archives have for study of the Americas–a conversation in multiple languages, across borders, and beyond territorial epistemologies.

Notes: Parts of an earlier version of this article appeared in Oppermann, Matthias. “The World Wide Web and Digital Culture: New Borders, New Media, New American Studies.” Concise Companion to American Studies (Blackwell Companions in Cultural Studies). Ed. John Carlos Rowe. Blackwell: Oxford, 2010. 334–349. Print.

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