I've got form commenting on Twitter-related issues (see here, here, here, here, and here), so there's a couple of things I'd like to say about Laurie Penny's latest piece, 'How Twitter Changed the Face of Dissent'.
Firstly, there is the pedantic point. The use of Twitter and Facebook does not represent something entirely new. Their scope and reach as protest tools are significant and qualitatively overshadow what has gone before, but organising decentralised networks of activists via the internet had a life prior to Web 2.0 and social networking. The way we organise online today stands on the shoulders of the anti-capitalist/global justice movement that saw its height between 1999 and 2005.
From the moment the internet emerged a significant feature of social life from the early-mid 90s (and before) diffuse groups of activists were making use of it to organise activities. Perhaps the most famous example of this in Britain was the J18 Carnival Against Capitalism. This drew from Reclaim the Streets and other activist groups associated with the anti-road building movement, but also depended on networks of hitherto keyboard-based dissenters and ne'er-do-wells clustered on dozens of email lists, news groups and bulletin boards. The use of the internet to counter the mainstream media's monopoly on news broadcasting was pioneered in the wake of these protests. The launch of Indymedia after the celebrated 'Battle of Seattle' was made possible by the London experience, and went some way toward consolidating the anti-capitalist/global justice movement online. From then on the internet complimented and amplified existing activist networks in organising people for future mobilisations, such as Prague in 2000, Genoa 2001, the European and World Social Forums, and Gleneagles in 2005. The internet is overlooked in the part it played in getting two million down to London on the February 15th, 2003 demonstration against the looming war in Iraq too.
I would suggest the main difference now is social media is capable of engaging broader audiences than the boards and mailing lists of old. While so-called intentional communities of activists still exist thanks to interlocking relationships of mutual support between bloggers and tweeters, there is more of an "overspill". Every political conversation on Facebook, every tweeted challenge to the media's narrative will, from time to time, catch the attention of an activist's non-political friend and follower who might read, act, and share with it others in their networks. Information traditionally crowded out by broadcasters and newspapers is cascading and diffusing among wider and wider layers at different levels of remove from the traditional core of radical politics.
But, and this is the second point, one should be careful not to overestimate the challenge this poses the state. In one sense the ruling class has, as Laurie argues, lost its monopoly over the means of communication. Once a message is out it cannot be reigned in again, as the US government are currently - and embarrassingly - finding out. And the rapidly growing practice of Twitter #solidarity is dissolving barriers between different groups of activists more effectively than a quarry full of poststructuralist philosophy. However you cannot get away from the awkward reality that this burgeoning radicalisation-by-internet is very much tolerated by the powers that be. Twitter is as capitalist as McDonalds. Facebook is fundamentally the same beast as Microsoft. Your internet connection is owned by a private company. The political economy of the social media world is indistinguishable in kind from any other marketplace, and as such each firm has material and political interests over and above the continued flow of users that pour through their services.
Readers may recall how swiftly mobile phone networks were shutdown in the wake of the 7/7 bombings. In the event (or promise) of a serious crisis of legitimacy, as a "friendly country" to the US it would take nothing for the government to block social media sites and institute an online black out. Private ownership of the means of social media allows the ruling class to assert their monopoly over communication if needs be.
Gil Scott-Heron once sang The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. 40 years on we can suppose it won't be appearing in a tweet either.