Twicktivism: could the illusion of power be potent after all?

The criticism of clicktivism may be well founded - that it is a substitute for action, a feel-dummy that makes life easier for the perpetrators of injustice. The author reflects on his participation in recent bicycle activism to offer the optimistic twist that an illusion of power could give people a taste for the real thing.

Julian Sayarer
24 May 2012

A good rule in political campaigning is to judge reactions rather than actions. You focus on what you achieved, not just what you did. This philosophy becomes particularly relevant in the digital world of politics. When an action exists primarily on a screen, and in noughts and ones, it’s unwise to take it as given that this generates a proportionate reaction back down in reality.

Of course this scepticism is nothing new. Writing in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell argued two years ago that the ‘weak-ties’ of social media, for all their speed and breadth, could never have brought about a monumental force such as the US civil right’s movement. Way back in the 1850s, when space-time fabric was shrinking more dramatically than it is now, Flaubert bemoaned that the railways – wildly popular in Parisian conversation – simply allowed more people to move around faster and still only be stupid together.

recent controversy has seen the technophile TED (Technology Entertainment Design) movement criticised for failing to broadcast a talk concerning US income inequality. TED have denied that they were censoring the talk, and accusations that it was partisan seem poorly founded, but the spat does raise the dilemma of TED as technology-focussed bubble, deriving support from affluent and upper classes, and as such reluctant to grasp the nettle of social issues such as power, class and inequality.

It would be unwise at this point to forget that 'entertainment' is one-third of the TED mandate, and this should perhaps be remembered by those representing its qualifications to affect serious change.  Technology is a largely positive-sum world of endless possibility, reality is tragically more zero-sum, and technology will fail to make meaningful difference to reality without conceding as much. Moreover, it would be sad if technology, and specifically divides between early-adopters versus the less enthusiastic, became a further subject around which humans can be divided, rather than a tool through which they might be unified.

Practical differences between online and reality were well-illustrated in the run-up to London’s recent mayoral elections, when one of the few polls to give Ken Livingstone a lead over Boris Johnson was conducted alongside a radio debate by so-called Twitter jury. Livingstone bested Johnson by 8%, and in a real life election campaign that was as depressingly dirty and conformist as could have been, Livingstone’s Twitter popularity says more about the progressive nature of Twitter’s users – by definition of the medium predisposed to change – than it says about the real world election that he went on to lose.

At the opposite end of the spectrum you find FutureEverything, last week’s Manchester conference so innovative it has evolved beyond even the need for a spacebar. Amongst the agenda were such talks as ‘Twitter brings you closer’, a project for a bacterial record of Manchester, and a bicycle with built-in air quality sensors and urban mapping technologies. To deny that any of these innovations represent brilliant technologies and thought is not the point; they do. But at the same time there’s a danger in growing excited about the possibilities of a technology-led future, without giving equal attention to the limitations of the present.

As ever, having become a microcosm for all things politics, the London Olympics got a mention at FutureEverything. Presented was #media2012, a ‘citizens news wire’ hashtag, through which independent media can present an alternative discourse for the games. Of course it’s a good idea, but whilst that discourse is being created, a democratically elected government has installed real life surface-to-air missiles on top of flats in Bow. Politics by social media is fast, seamless, sophisticated and offers constant progress. Real world politics by comparison can be ugly, entrenched and frequently mundane. The digital world creates a sense of power, whereas reality can feel terribly disempowering. Just as the Chinese might one day realise that Facebook generates more content than discontent, and thereby lift its ban on the site, similarly Twitter’s great legacy might be as the medium that saw people wilfully lift their own politics out of the real and into the virtual.

This tendency is exemplified within the ever fiery debate concerning internet freedom. On both sides of the Atlantic, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Anti Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) have created, along with opposition to government snooping laws, a new range of activists, and the Internet has arguably become the arena in which encroachment into our freedoms are challenged most pointedly. This is all well and good, however, it might be worth questioning why the threat to internet freedom attracts such attention, when (crudely-titled) real world freedoms - ranging from the right to vote to the freedom to protest or hold public meetings - are often so underused. Our online communications can be micromanaged and then submitted to highly targeted audiences. The potential for both control and positive affirmation makes it an alluring, if incomplete substitute for the hit-and-miss and random of reality. People do not need to be criticised for taking the easier option in broadcasting a message, but there is always the danger that more harm than good is done if they are unaware that they are doing so.

Naturally the two realms of offline and online are not mutually exclusive of one another. London's bicycle community, who have clearly embraced some of the older as well as the latest in human technology with equal enthusiasm, provide more than one good example. When John Griffin, boss of minicab firm Addison Lee, condemned cyclists for taking up valuable road space and risking death by getting in the way of his fleet, Twitter and social media gathered the backlash storm. Crucially, however, social media in this instance clearly expressed the need for people to write letters encouraging companies to boycott Addison Lee, and it was also used to mobilise cyclists for a protest at the Addison Lee offices. A different example, covered recently in The Guardian, talked of a right-wing extremist bemoaning 'creeping Sharia' with a Twitter hashtag, only to see the hashtag hijacked by lighthearted ridicule of his scaremongering. This may have represented some sort of online victory, however it would be hard to suggest that the co-opting of a hashtag has significant implications outside of Twitter.

But perhaps that misses the point. If leftist liberals need to feel a sense of meaningful action against injustice to feel OK, and if social media and technology provides them with that sense, perhaps this will be the positive legacy of technology. It won’t shape society, but it will shape minds. As thoughts go, it’s strangely comforting, albeit in an Orwellian sense. A more optimistic take would see the reach of social media found, ultimately, to be an inadequate response to our problems, with the realisation of this inadequacy driving greater innovation in activism. To pursue this line of thought, there is always the hope that an illusion of power, if strong enough, could with any luck give people a taste for the real thing.


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