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Mobile Berlin: Social Media and the New Europe

Jordan Kraemer, PhD Candidate in Anthropology, UC Irvine

Emerging communication technologies potentially foster global and transnational connections over national ones, yet recent events have called into question the future of supraregional institutions such as the European Union. What is the relationship between geographic levels such as the global, national, regional, or local and online media practices? This project investigates the role of emerging media technologies, particularly social media platforms such as Facebook, in transforming the geographic organization of everyday life by rethinking scale as a category of analysis. How is an integrated "New Europe," for example, configured as a geographic scale through online communication, even as social and mobile media users also interact at local and national levels, online and offline? Informed by literature in anthropology and cultural geography (e.g. Brenner 1998, 2001; Lambek 2011; Marston 2000; Marston et al. 2005; Tsing 2004), this analysis considers spatial scales as contingent means of ordering social space, with consequences for understanding European integration and the uneven ways social and digital media circulate geographically, to rethink the link between communication technologies and globalization.

My research involved eleven months of ethnographic fieldwork between 2007-10, online and in Berlin (as a key site of postsocialist European integration) with additional sites in Germany and the Netherlands. I followed two small circles of users in their 20s and 30s for whom social media had become central to everyday communication, planning, and hanging out. I conducted participant observation online and offline with friends in both groups, and interviewed core members of each in more depth. I had planned initially to study cosmopolitan young Berliners in translocal electronic music scenes (that is, networks that spanned sites across Europe and elsewhere), and studied one friendship circle (Freundeskreis) of electronic music fans. I also became acquainted with a second close-knit group whose members had grown up together in former East Germany, maintaining a network of regional friends and contacts in Berlin while staying in touch with friends and family back home. With these friendship circles as a particularly intimate scale of social organization, I traced how users produced and articulated local, regional, translocal, national, and supraregional connections on platforms such as Facebook, blogs, Skype, Twitter, and national news websites, as well as mobile technologies like SMS (text messaging).

By rethinking social and digital media practices in regard to scalemaking, I found that users contributed to re-ordering and reconfiguring everyday geographic organization, from enacting the local of Berlin online and offline to "feeling German" as part of an affective national public (cf. Berlant 2008). Rather than produce predominantly global or transnational spaces online, social media made possible interactions at multiple scales in online and offline contexts. Through diverse language practices, for example, social media users participated in multiple online publics, without generating a linguistically homogenized global sphere. What kind of publics, then, do social and digital media facilitate? Will a shared European public emerge in the E.U.? Mobile technologies, moreover, increasingly brought online interactions into everyday activities. What kinds of mobilities were at stake in using laptops, smartphones, or wireless networking? How did mobile devices bring interactions at different spatial scales into the same urban sites? Lastly, I considered the role of telecommunication policy, regulation, and infrastructure in Germany in shaping social and digital media practices. National licensing restrictions, for example, meant that digital music and videos circulated in uneven and geographically specific ways, even as many users negotiated or even circumvented these disparities. The local, national, and regional were not disappearing in an increasingly integrated Europe, but were being re-organized in relation to translocal and transnational circuits. At the same time, a shared Europeanness was coming to inform many aspects of everyday life in Berlin, with consequences for who counted as German or as European.