Monday 20 December 2010

The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted

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.


Jim Jepps said...

This is a rather good post! Hope you're having a good Christmas week

Phil said...

Cheers, Jim. Fiver's in the mail. Will be sending something your way over the next couple of days.

Bob said...

Excellent post Phil.

JonathanD said...

Your observations around private control over the Internet are quite correct, and many people forget this when discussing it's usefulness as a tool for activists.

Chomsky discussed this with Andrew Marr way back in 1996:

"Remember, incidentally, that the Internet is an elite operation. Most of the population of the world has never even made a phone call, you know, so that's certainly not on the Internet. Nevertheless, it does have democratising potential, and there's a struggle going on right now as to whether that's going to be realised, or whether it'll turn into something like a home marketing service, and a way of marginalising people even further. That discussion went on in the 1920s (it was Radio) - that's interesting how it turned out - it went on over Television, it's now going on over the Internet. And, that's a matter of popular struggle. Look: We don't live the way we did 200 years ago, or even 30 years ago - there's been a lot of progress. It hasn't been gifts from above. It's been the result of people getting together, and refusing to accept the dictates of authoritarian institutions. And, there's no reason to think that that's over."

luna17 said...

On top form. Like the recent article defending the far left, this is a welcome intervention in current debates - and, again like the far left piece, willing to challenge a view which is at risk of becoming almost an orthodoxy.

This issue isn't just about social media. It's about the whole idea that we should celebrate and glorify the notion of being 'leaderless' and 'networked', which as you note are hardly novel ideas at all. Those ideas held back the anti-capitalist movement, and can potentially be damaging again. There are times when we need to centralise our efforts and unite people around a coherent strategy. This is undermined by fetishing 'decentralisation'.

It is, in any case, inaccurate as a way of assessing recent protests. Both UK Uncut and the student protests have gained enormously from co-ordination and coherence. These nationally-coordinated days of action have had far greater impact than if everything was fragmented. That means centralism, co-ordination, strategy and - whisper it - leadership.

Dave O said...

I'm over 50 and don't rightly understand you young 'uns and this internet thingy.

But I reckon you're just about right, Phil. The bastards are hardly going to give us the opportunity on a plate.

andy newman said...

On a technical point, which I can say with some authority as a security professional in the industry, the GSM networks were certainly not taken down after 7/7.

What happened was that there was very significant load congestion as the capacity of the networks was unable to deal with the sustained spike of increased demand. We can see that this was not a political downtime, because:

i) there was a degradation of service, not a complete suspension
ii) similar losses of service occured in Carlisle and Bocastle due to flooding, and in New Orleans due to Katrina.
iii) the PSTN system (landline phones) continued uninterputed. If the state had taken down the GSM networks, then why leave the PSTN in place?
iv) there would have been no security advantage in preventing GSM being used for detonation, as bombings on the underground could not use GSM for detonation (TETRA works in the tunnels due to leaky feeders, but these have not been installed for GSM)

Generally, the commercial view of the GSM network operators is that they will not take down the service due to the vast financial losses they would take. It would take a very determined and certain Home Secretary to override that commercial argument.

andy newman said...

Incidently, I just don't beleive that BBC report you quote saying the GSM networs were taken down - it sounds like pub talk lapped up by a gullible jouno.

there are a number of holes in it.

Firstly, the police do not have the technical capability to take down the GSM service, they would have to liaise with the network operators; and the operators are simply not going to take that instruction from a reltively junior officer; especially from the City of London Police, not even the Met.

Secondly, the report refers to the police being worried about their own comms being jammed; but they all use the Airwave TETRA system, which is independent of GSM.

The GLA's report on the London bombings reports that the GSM freezing up was due to technical issues of overloading, not due to it being turned off.

It is unthinkable that the GLA's own official inquiry would not know if the police had turned of the mobile networks; and given that there would have been no security advantage in doing s, it would be unthinkable that the mobile network opertators would have taken a hit of tens of milions of pounds quietly wthout maing a fuss about it.

Anonymous said...

Good article, but you miss two key points. The first is the immediacy of Twitter. Like Laurie, I've been Twitter reporting (Tworting?) demos because it is so damn fast and easy. Barring connection issues and dying batteries, nothing currently drops us blasting out text and photos virtually as they happen. If the kids had been paying attention during the second demo, I tweeted warning about the danger of a kettle just before the cops moved into place.

The second point, which you mention, but don't fully seem to appreciate is the mainstreaming aspect. Twitter is mainstream, but it's not just about the disinterested who come across messages, it's also about being engaged with people who can spread the message. Paul Mason's reporting of the demise has been notable not just because it's been damned good, but also how he's used Twitter to add to it. He's not the only one.

Unlike Indymedia, or sites like libcom, which are still ghettos, Twitter is a mainstream space where we can broadcast radical messages. And if they try to shut us down, we can build an alternative that will bring people with us.

Boffy said...

I think its also necessary to consider the question of whether all ownership, and all property is necessarily "Capitalist". I don't mean just in the sense that Workers could own some of this property as Co-operatives. In a sense, as Marx demonstrates, all property within a hugely predominantly Capitalist Mode of Production has to conform to laws that are determined by those that govern Capital itself, but even within different fractions of Capital, there are contradictions and opposing interests. But, other forms of property always continue and co-exist within any Mode of Production - the most obvious being Feudal Property continuing alongside a powerful Landlord Class with its own independent interests until at least the end of the 19th Century.

The reason I raise this is that about ten years ago, I began to think about where the development of the Internet might lead. I came up with the idea of "Technological Feudalism". That is, we see an increasing tendency towards the break-up of traditional large-scale working-class communties based upon large enterprises. That has an important consequence for the way Marxists have always viewed the role of the workplace in creating a class in itself and for itself. Different communities and collectivities are increasing in importance in determining class consciousness and ideology.

At the same time there is an increasing tendency towards home-working, and extending the workpalce casualisation that developed in the 80's and 90's, a small but growing development of home based self-employment, with people bidding for work/contracts via the Internet, and working and sending their completed task over it. Given the increase in new forms of sometimes old employment e.g. musicians, writers and so on making their work available via the Net, there is considerable scope for this to expand rapidly.

This led me to the idea that more and more these atomised individuals, were being transformed increasingly into what we would previously have described as peasants, even the smaller collectivities and communties were more like peasant villages. Increasingly, they would no longer sell their Labour-power, but a commodity, or even just a Use Value. They would own some of their own means of production - a home base, a computer etc. But, the actual property on which the means of production were employed would belong to an Internet Landlord/ISP or series of such if you include the owners of the software - leased - through which to carry out various tasks e.g. bookkeeping.

If that is true then these Technological Feudalists could increasingly develop their own independent class interests from the Capitalist Class per se, just as the Landlords had separate interests.

Boffy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil said...

Cheers for that, Andy. I should really know better than to take what I read on the BBC at face value.

But I think the point remains. During the last protests those on the streets were communicating with others watching news coverage at home. Through social media attempts were made to warn activists where the police were sealing off exits, where the kettle was likely to come, etc. If that becomes a big problem for the police in the future I'm sure they'd have no problem at all shutting down local mobile networks if needs be.

Phil said...

Donna, while I don't talk about that stuff in this piece I have in the other articles I've written about Twitter plugged at the top of the article.

Phil said...

There has been some stuff done on that issue already, Boffy. My wife's cousin makes a living off Ebay, for instance. I don't think it will ever develop to the extent you outline, nor do I think there's much difference between them and conventional 'one man bands' you can find among the petit bourgeoisie.

opit said...

'Take the BBC at face value.' LOL There are some who still do - though I repost Biased BBC after running a couple of posts pointing out that Lord Ha-Ha's counterpart never declared the war over.
I thought the Twitter Revolution stagecraft that is still not generally understood and forward from as an example.