As many have noted, Julia Gillard’s gender speech made its global impact because of digital media. If technology hadn’t allowed people to see Gillard’s address themselves, if we’d all been reliant on gallery reporters, the episode would have amounted, in all probability, to little more than another passing parliamentary spat, marked by a few lines in the broadsheets and nothing more. But seeing was only part of it. The social heft came not merely from the speech’s content but from its extraordinarily rapid proliferation, with the video’s virality becoming central to its meaning: a palpable and widely understood signifier of how much opposition to sexism resonated.
The importance of Twitter and Facebook to misogyny-gate led some to emphasise a clash between medias old and new, with the Australian, in particular, treating the internet as if it were a particular demographic, a newly discovered inner-city suburb somewhere, entirely populated by socialists and militant homosexuals. Actually, as a recent study explains, in Australia, ‘internet usage is near-universal across all age groups, until we reach 65+ where it drops to 93 per cent’. That is, today, even among the Australian’s core readership of aggrieved grandfathers, almost everyone gets online in some way, shape or form. The same study reveals that, as you would expect, a clear majority of internet users regularly access some form of social media), so much so that, in reality, far more people log into Facebook on a daily basis than subscribe to print newspapers, a comparison that should (but won’t) make the curmudgeon chorus shut its collective pie hole.
Yet, if the contrast between print and digital has been posed idiotically, that doesn’t mean that questions don’t arise as to just how politics plays out within social media networks. The very term ‘network’ indicates a productive line of inquiry, suggestive of how social media inherently provides a structure for political dialogue in a way that’s quite new. You read a newspaper in the morning, you listen to the radio in the car, you watch TV in the evening: in all those cases, you imbibe political ideas in circumstances quite distinct from whatever political interventions you might go on to make. On Facebook and Twitter, however, production and consumption merge (you see a meme; you circulate it), with the medium itself creating an easy framework for your own engagement.
But what’s the historical context for that?
Consider the following:
Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned …
The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.
The passage comes, of course, from the Communist Manifesto, the famous section in which Marx and Engels contrast the dynamism of capitalism against the turgidity of previous modes of production. What’s striking is how aptly the tropes used for the system itself apply to the most distinctive aspects of online culture. If, for instance, you sought a museum dedicated to the antiquation of ossified novelties, could you do better than the Internet Meme Database? For the impulse to profane the holy, read Gawker’s expose of Violentacrez and the trolls of reddit, a remarkable case study of how that particularly psychology works itself out – and, as for nestling everywhere, settling everywhere, establishing connections everywhere … well, oh, hai, internet.
It’s an obvious point but still worth making: the instant, international communication system we all use arises inexorably from the process of globalisation that, though only embryonic in 1848, was still sufficiently evident that Marx could note how the ‘intellectual creations of individual nations [were] becom[ing] common property’. As they say, if we didn’t have a net, it would be necessary to invent one: the whole nature of production today, a web of social interactions stretching across the globe, implies something like the internet.
Furthermore, you can see how so much that’s distinctive about internet culture stems from the particular contradictions of capitalism’s relationship to technology. The mainstreaming of the web coincides with the proletarianisation of white collar employment (most obviously, the reduction of computer operators from skilled specialists to regular Joes) and the corresponding creation of a huge class of people dealing with data all day long. That’s why, as anyone who moderates a website knows, traffic rises and falls with the rhythms of working life. From pornography to LOLcats, the distinctive manifestations of digital culture make more sense when you realise that the same processes that force so many of us to spend eight hours staring at computer screens also mean that we interact with an almost magical technology in conditions of tedium and inanity. If much of the internet is devoted to triviality, that’s evidence not of the medium’s marginality but rather its social centrality.
Precisely because we’re discussing something embedded so deeply in a particular context before we examine the particular possibilities of social media, it makes sense to think about the distinctive aspects of Left politics in the neoliberal era.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq provides an interesting study. That war began, in Australia and most industrialised countries, with the traditional organisations of the Left (unions, social democratic parties, etc.) weaker than ever before. Yet the protests in February 2003 became the biggest ever in human history, with demonstrations on every continent (yes, scientists marched in Antarctica).
The scale of the mobilisations proved that, under certain circumstances, it was possible for a comparatively small number of activists to mobilise huge numbers, primarily by using the media. The call to protest the Iraq invasion went, we might say, ‘viral’, not in the sense that the protests were built online (though by that time the internet was already an important resource) but because word spread very rapidly without the structures that previously would have been central. The demonstrations did not consist of huge battalions mobilised by leftist organisations or trade unions (though both played their role); they were, in many ways, an aggregation of otherwise unrelated individuals.
Precisely because the 2003 protests were important, it seems worthwhile for the Left to ponder how virality works, to have a deeper understanding of the particular conjuncture that makes such manifestations possible, and then to think through what that might mean for social media in particular. The Kony 2012 episode provides an interesting counterpoint. Yes, the campaign was bogus, and much of the information it disseminated either wrong or racist or both, but the ability of a relatively small group to consciously craft a message to reach millions upon millions of people should not be dismissed lightly. Would it be possible to do something similar with a clip about, say, the Afghan war? If not, why not? If so, how?
Yet, when considering this, it’s also useful to think about the weaknesses of the Iraq protests. That is to say, the rallies were huge, yes, but in most cases, the initial numbers melted away very quickly. After the first actions, the follow-up protests were much, much smaller. In Australia, at least, the February action was never repeated.
It’s not difficult to understand why. Precisely because the initial protest came about in conditions of organisational collapse, in which the participants were addressed primarily via the media and as individuals, the bonds tethering them together were weak and easily broken. To put it another way, because virality depends on the conjunction, it can’t easily be repeated. It generates a moment, not a movement; it’s innately ephemeral.
Furthermore, the Iraq protests hinted at what would later become more and more apparent: that, in the context of the neoliberal assault on the very notion of collectivity, even protest politics could be individualised. Think about the predominant slogan raised against the Iraq war: the cri-de-coeur of ‘not in my name’. Those words could be interpreted as a denial of the governing parties’ political authority but they could equally represent a politics reduced exclusively to personal morality: that is, not as an insistence that the war would be prevented, but a refusal to be implicated in a conflict assumed to be inevitable. Thus a protest might be less an assertion of collective popular will (the beginning of a campaign to achieve a particular objective) and more a collective symbolisation of individual morality.
The same tendency – and it is only a tendency – has played out again and again in the nine years since then, in the context of an ongoing absence of the major victories for social movements that might have fostered a sense of the possibility of collective change. In a setting in which grassroots victories feel unrealistic (or, more strongly, simply utopian), declaring a personal ethical stance, an opposition that could be only symbolic, seems the only alternative.
Which brings us back to social media. Twitter and Facebook and the other platforms are ideally suited to a time of symbolic protest, not simply because, like all media, symbols are their basic currency but because they’re so fundamentally entwined with personal identity. That is, after all, the point of your Facebook profile: it’s a cultivated representation of who you are and what you believe, and so there’s not much of a progression from letting your friends know that you’re a cat person to choosing an avatar that expresses your horror at repression in Syria. What’s more, as the Facebook redesigners have realized, your online identity stems as much from the aggregation of the content you share as from the cheery photo you choose as your avatar. By circulating a clip about sexism or a meme about European austerity, you’re therefore saying, ‘I’m the kind of person who opposes discrimination or cares about world events.’
Now, there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s obviously good if people oppose discrimination; it’s even better if that’s central to how they see themselves. But an assertion of identity does not in and of itself a political strategy make. Indeed, in some respects, it’s almost defined explicitly in opposition to very notion of political strategy. Again, think about Iraq, where asserting individual moral opposition became so important precisely because of the lack of confidence that the war might actually be prevented.
This, then, is the obvious critique of social media activism – that social media campaigns are largely ephemeral; that, in fact, social media activism doesn’t, in some senses, have a politics attached to it at all.
No great surprises there. So-called clictavism has been well and truly denounced over the years, and correctly so. The fad for Twibbons that was around not so long ago seems to have faded and that’s probably a good thing.
But the point of making the Iraq comparison is to suggest that the obvious problems with social media campaigns do not stem exclusively from the internet; that, in fact, their political limitations reflect a model of politics that’s already become dominant within the offline world, a model that’s more about individual moral refusal of wrongs that can’t be righted than strategies for achieving change.
As soon as you pose the problem like that, a whole series of more interesting issues appear. The big Iraq demonstrations were ephemeral. But it would have been insane for the Left to ignore them. If hundreds of thousands of people are concerned about a political issue, that’s something not to be sneezed at (whatever its limitations). The challenge posed for the Left is to find ways to convert a moral opposition to war into a political determination to prevent it.
Could you not say the same thing about social media flare ups? Is not the task for the Left to develop techniques for intersecting with a sudden, intense passion for politics manifested when a particular event bursts onto the internet, however fleetingly? After all, if there’s millions of users interested in an issue, even if only momentarily, you only have to connect with a tiny proportion of them in order to be dealing with a pretty big constituency. What’s more, if we did establish such techniques, would it not then become important to have a serious understanding of how virality takes place, so that we could, perhaps, deliberately generate a worldwide buzz around particular issues?
Precisely because the internet reflects the logic of contemporary capitalism, what happens online can’t be understand outside the context of what’s happening in real life. If one aspect of that is a recognition that the difficulties with social media politics today reflect broader political problems in the world itself, there is another corollary. Quite obviously, in a different political context – in, say, a setting of social turmoil, as per the Arab Spring – far more possibilities open up with social media, as with everything else. But that’s not where we’re at now. In the interim, developing a greater understanding of how this tool functions seems an increasingly important task.