Thursday 25 April 2013

Smash Facebook!

In my experience, anarchists are either the funsome tricksters of revolutionary politics; or the most terribly po-faced, super serious folk going. There is no happy medium. So I can't quite decide if Anarchists: We need to talk about Facebook is serious polemic bemoaning the lack of revolutionary responsibility, or a wind up.

The argument runs like this. Anarchist collectives have expended enormous reservoirs of labour and resource constructing a parallel architecture of tough-to-crack servers and hard-encrypted email facilities. And yet, to their dismay, rather than hang out at the black flag intentional community safe from the prying eyes of the state (or, more likely, nosey parents), most anarchists prefer organising bedroom tax demos or playing Farmville on Facebook. Not only is this wrong because Facebook is a for-profit business, it collates data on one's personal networks and interests. It's a security hazard. But more than that, the information freely handed over could be analysed to model social relations and, in turn, enable predictions to be generated about the resonance, depth, and mobilisation potential of one or a set of social/political issues.

I don't know about you, but I'll never look at Facebook likes the same way again.

Well, for one, our anonymous anarchist collective can relax. I've been at this sociology lark for 20 years and have some knowledge of the literature on how movements mobilise around an issue. For example, this old post on the value-added approach to social movement mobilisation is demonstrative of the complexity of the dynamics involved. It would take more than number crunching tens of millions of Facebook status updates to predict the emergence of a movement, simply because the key mobilising processes involved occur outside social media's purview. Analytics may be able to suggest the reach of an issue, but cannot predict its mobilisation potential. Well, not yet.

There's an element of sniffiness to all this, that if you are on Facebook and use Yahoo Mail you can't be a proper revolutionary. But our anarchists nevertheless make an oft-overlooked point. If you are engaged in radical politics of any kind, Facebook is convenient but it is not neutral. It's in the business of making money from a system of open, voluntary surveillance and is always at all times subject to the laws of the United States. A conspiratorial frame of mind is not required to realise it exists within a market and institutional context whose interests lie in business-as-usual transactions. Not in disruption or their violent overthrow.

But in warning of Facebook's hazard, their polemic pushes the stick too far in the direction of revolutionary purity. I'm sure dedicated secure servers for anarchists are nice, non-hierarchical safe spaces where one can debate muesli and the SWP interminably. But the participation pool is somewhat limited to, irony of ironies, that elite of anarchists trusted enough to be involved. Facebook and Twitter on the other hand are, basically, the world. As I've previously put it, "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." Anarchist internet spaces are echo chambers. Mainstream social media are an opportunity.

I suppose one's take on the political "permissibility" of Facebook rests on what you're in politics for. I use mainstream social media and my blog because I have something to say and a particular kind of politics to promote. I aim to build a bigger audience to convince as many people as possible that, ultimately, the route to a better society is through the labour movement and Labour Party. And like almost everyone else, I manage my social media footprint as carefully as I check my day-to-day behaviour. But if you're involved because you're attracted to the alternative lifestyle of ritualised revolutionary activity and getting people's backs up, then it's just as well you stick to your own squirrelled-away servers.


jimboo said...

Perhaps they should study the successful (In relation to other small groups)use of the Internet by the Zapatista movement. A combination of Identity Politics,application of sociological theory and networking has helped overcome the initial military failures. Sociology in action.

Anonymous said...

i wonder if the solution might be parallell remaining involved in twitter and face book but expanding the secure servers at the same time. i think the anarchists and pirates are ultimatley right in there paranoia about the internet and definitley wonder if its always right to discuss tactics online. ive said before if the pirates are serious about this then they need to organise classes in the real world as a lot of people are a bit scared of computers even people who use them a lot they alot.

Anonymous said...

this has a different feel about it in light of PRISM...