The popular Oscar-winning film Roma quickly became a sensation after its release in 2018, to critical acclaim. This film puts front and center the life of two indigenous domestic workers in Mexico City, to provide a deeper and more multi-dimensional representation of a group of largely invisible workers, as we follow one of the protagonists as she seeks to have an abortion. This film was produced with the support of Just Films, a program of the Ford Foundation, which “funds social justice storytelling and the 21st-century arts infrastructure that supports it …. [to] disrupt stereotypes, and help transform the conditions that perpetuate injustice and inequality.” It benefitted from the input of the National Alliance of Domestic Workers, which is devoted to improving the work and life conditions of this hyper-exploited group. Only with the support of such organizations did Roma, which was released on Netflix after a limited theatrical run, have a powerful cultural influence. These organizations participated in what I call “recognition chains,” which are networks of collaboration that contribute to transforming the narratives through which we perceive reality, and which broaden the circle of those we perceive as worthy.
My book Seeing Others: How Recognition Works and How it Can Help Heal a Divided World, draws on almost 200 interviews with “change agents” who participate in such recognition chains. My interviewees include cultural creators, such as Hollywood professionals and comedians, who produce and scale up representations of minoritized groups that challenge stereotypes and traditional stigma. These recognition chains are disseminated through the media, which shape how certain narratives do or don’t gain traction.
In his classic study Imagined Communities, the historian Benedict Anderson described how representations of different groups (whether religious, regional, occupational, or otherwise) in books and periodicals helped give shape to national collective identities in Europe. In Anderson’s account, literacy was essential to the distribution of shared identities, since it was mostly through print media that shared group identities were able to coalesce. Sociologist Heather Haveman also wrote about the importance of magazines and newspapers in bringing nineteenth century Americans together around their specific leisure activities, occupations, ethnic groups, religious affiliations, or geographic locations.
But while traditional media have exercised enormous influence over recognition, new digital media are coming to play an even bigger role, as newspapers and other print publications face increasingly dire economic challenges and new distribution platforms such as Netflix and Patreon expand. Understanding these structural changes is essential to making sense of recognition chains.
We have reason to be pessimistic, unless the consumption of social media changes dramatically and in unexpected ways.
Whereas in the past, traditionally dominant groups (namely, white men) exercised enormous influence over the media, today we are seeing new media that are more inclusive. This is happening at the same time that traditional gatekeepers in cultural industries such as film, music, and radio have lost their monopoly over decision-making. As such, the growth and diversification of the media are helping to strengthen recognition chains.
As new digital platforms gain power and popularity, ordinary people are increasingly turning to these new sources of information, and particularly to social media and podcasts, which stand to play an important role in recognition chains. Thus far, however, the most active users of these platforms remain concentrated among a relatively small group. In 2018, for instance, 22 percent of the American population used Twitter. Though this sounds like a significant portion, 80 percent of all US activity on the platform was attributable to a narrow subset, the most active 10% of users. And of course, as many different commentators and analysts have noted, where people get their information varies considerably across age groups and level of education. Younger generations get more of their information on social media; 48 percent of Americans under thirty consume their political news primarily through social media, and an additional 21 percent consume their news through other forms of online media, such as online publications (like Politico or Slate). The more highly educated are 13 percentage points more likely to use social media in general than those who did not pursue post-secondary education. They are especially attracted to platforms that facilitate discussion like Twitter and Reddit, as well as professional platforms like LinkedIn.
Thus it is not surprising that at least for the time being, television remains the primary medium for the vast majority in the US. According to The Atlantic, Americans in 2018 were still watching nearly eight hours of television per household per day. Nightly local TV news remains an important source of information for much of the population. As these are consolidated by the TV goliath Sinclair Broadcast group, their content is likely to become more homogeneous and distinctive across contexts.
At the same time, other forms of media are in trouble—and this is particularly true of those that have traditionally been controlled by the powerful and privileged. Print journalism, for instance, has been in an accelerating crisis for several decades, and its downfall has dramatically affected our ability to understand the world around us. Of course, many newspapers have shut down in the internet era, as advertising revenues collapsed, but even the strongest of those that have survived lack anything close to the power and reach of the new online media platforms. The New York Times, for example, which is one of the most powerful remaining print outlets, had 7.6 million subscribers globally at the end of 2021 (including both print and online), with revenue of more than $2 billion for the full year of 2021. Compare that to Facebook’s annual revenue of $39.3 billion and its 2.9 billion monthly active users globally; and to Twitter’s $5.07 billion and 217 monthly active million users. All of this means that newspapers are less able to do their important work of relaying information about current events. In 2020, only 3 percent of Americans cited print newspapers as their favorite source of information and only 10 percent of those surveyed said that they access print publications online often. In February 2022, among American Millennials, only 11 percent said that newspapers are their most frequent news source, while 44 percent reported that daily news consumption came through social media. The crisis in reporting has reached the point that nonprofits like ProPublica and the Center for Investigative Reporting have had to step in to fill the gap. With the decline of local newspaper, the coverage of state legislatures has declined by 35 percent since 2003.
How these changes will affect recognition chains remains to be seen. Given that algorithms direct social media users toward the sources of information they have consumed in the past, they are likely to limit exposure to groups with different opinions, which will work against broadening recognition. Therefore we have reason to be pessimistic, unless the consumption of social media changes dramatically and in unexpected ways.
Seeing Others: How Recognition Works and How it Can Help Heal a Divided World by Michèle Lamont is available now.