Wednesday 14 May 2014

Learning from Stephen Sutton

Practically everyone plugged in to some form of social media will have heard of Stephen Sutton, the 19 year old teenage cancer fundraiser who died earlier today. It's very sad news for his family and friends, and for everyone who followed his story. His life was short, but he set an exemplary example of altruism. It must have been very gratifying for Stephen knowing that years of fundraising finally paid off and that others will benefit from the £3.2m he and his supporters were able to raise for the Teenage Cancer Trust.

People who write about the social uses of the new media technologies all too often dwell on the darker side of the internet. It's easy to see why. The utopian yearning of escaping the meat, and cruising the information superhighway en route to your electronic homestead collapsed the very moment people started waxing lyrical about them. Besides, dystopia's cache of cool is way more beguiling than the positives the internet allows for. Then again, melancholy never built anything - something Stephen certainly realised.

For progressive people who want to use the power of networks to mobilise people for a better society, Stephen's example highlights two positives, and one negative.

First, there is strength in weak ties. It's long been common sense in the sociology of social movements and networks. Mark Granovetter, the author of the aforementioned 1973 paper, argued that myriad, micro-level ties between participants in various groups were key for transmitting information and mobilising solidarities. For example, all too often the relationship between trade unions and the Labour Party is presented as either a) a bureaucratic relationship, and/or b) points of contacts between party and union tops. The real strength is the unsaid c) the tens of thousands of ties between trade union members and Labour, ties that ultimately count for more than formalised relations. Stephen's campaign, though totally different from this example, harnessed the power of weak ties. Thumb upping, retweeting, pins, blogging, whatever the social media platform you chose, constant coverage of Stephen's Story by his supporters saw the latest update being diffused among friends, followers, etc. It costs virtually nothing to pass a story on, and it snowballs from there.

Yeah, yeah. An observation as sharp as noting the Pope's Catholicism. Online networks, however, are not rarefied free-floating things. They roughly map on to really existing weak ties. As embedded but latent patterns of potential social interaction, different packages of information will excite them differently. For example, last week during Eurovision I cheekily retweeted my post about the UK's 1995 entry, Love City Groove. Later on I tweeted that Conchita Wurst's victory was a big eff off to homophobes, transphobes and bigots. Which received the thousand retweets? The latter, of course. It struck and mobilised the emotional content of the moment better than a brazen plug did. Likewise with Stephen. Cancer and other charities promote appeals all the time, but Stephen's campaign was able to alight the affective potentiality of the networks in all kinds of ways. The tragic backstory of a healthy-looking young lad struck by disease combined with the warmth and positivity his images embodied. The empathy his situation elicited from tens of thousands, and the solidarity others felt with this struggle. Sympathy, empathy, affection, admiration, these were the emotions Stephen's successful campaign were able to mobilise and transform into donations. It establishes that what you might call a 'solidarity swarm' can be just as potent on the networks as a twitchfork mob.

The second point is that simultaneously, the emotional charging of social networks in this way can collapse time and distance and, subjectively, bring into very close personal approximation someone you haven't met. It's not dissimilar to the passing of a celebrity, but is not exactly the same. In the sad case of Peaches Geldof, for instance, hers was a face and a story that appeared from time to time in our heavily mediated everyday lives. We didn't know her, but the media/social media complex generated a simulation of familiarity with her person. When she died, it was only natural people - even bone-deep cynics like me - were thrown. That this caused upset for some doesn't mean their pain was inauthentic. Stephen's case was different in that he only captured the popular imagination for a short time. The mediatised everyday collapsed social distance in the usual manner, but the emotionally charged character of items about his condition, latest initiatives, and so on dredged up memories - sometimes quite raw - among those who had lost loved ones to the same disease. The connection (the status, the tweet) was more than updated Stephen-related information. For many it was a trigger, a reminder of how analogously relevant his situation was to their immediate lives. Simultaneously this was action-oriented. Touching and upsetting, yes. Yet Stephen did not offer the contemplation of sadness and loss, but the opportunity and means to prevent others from suffering by the cathartic exercise of giving.

Networking, emotion, immediacy. These are the foundation stones of Stephen's successful campaign. Ways of mobilising people around progressive causes with social media can learn from this, but there is one element that does not transmit straightforwardly. Stephen's was a charity campaign. The cost of participating in time and, if you were so inclined, donations, were negligible. Less than a second to retweet, like or pin. Less than a minute to give. Sure, as purely information awareness exercises politics can do the same. But ultimately, social movements and parties have to mobilise people in the real world, from the bare minimum of voting to activism of some description. The personal cost of participation is greater and can never, by itself, get anywhere near Steven's campaign. Nevertheless, if there is one thing Steven's example tells us, one should never underestimate the potential of weak ties.

Sleep well, Stephen.

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