Tuesday 19 March 2019

A Devourer of Souls

Twitter is such an innocent-sounding word. Yet in the dystopic social media landscapes of 21st century late capitalism it is a crusher of spirits and devourer of souls. It is an expansive news service, a friendship network, trolling board, and niche fandom simultaneously and ceaselessly packaged in one simple, easy-to-use interface. That makes it ground zero for, well, everything. For folks not plugged into the juggernaut, or those who've never known anything but always-online describing its novelty is difficult. My account marked its first decade on the 10th of this month, and for me and hundreds of millions of others it has transformed how we do the daily politics and the very way we think and react.

What was Twitter like 10 years ago? One should studiously avoid nostalgia, which is often more dangerous than any ideology. But it was different. Size mattered, and it was several orders of magnitude smaller. When I joined there were no hashtags and, consequently, trending topics. The retweet button wasn't invented, threading was far in the future and, yes, there were only 140 characters. It was a platform still finding its feet, as were all of its users. See for yourself with the inane bullshit that was my first day on the platform. However, its use very quickly became apparent. Not long after joining, the G20 rolled in to London for one of its high profile summits. During the days of protest PhD productivity fell as tweets and reports rolled in from on-the-ground participants. Of course, sat behind a computer screen in a dingy office seeing micro blogs roll in didn't feel like you were there in the crowd, but the immediacy of the reporting and its real time updating engaged you in a process of observation and feeding back. Then Ian Tomlinson, a bystander going about his business, was assaulted by the police and died later. The Graun had the footage but it was the collective refusal of the Twitterati to let the story disappear, and ensuring it was put in front of broadcast hacks day on the platform day after day ensured it became a story. Later that year, Twitter was used to get round the gagging order Trafigura slapped on the media to cover for its toxic waste dumping off Cote d'Ivoire. And it became the tool of choice for people protesting against Iranian theocracy, successfully bypassing regime media and getting their messages out - a pool of tactics that helped the Arab Spring along a year later.

The possibility of Twitter being something more than a glorified chatroom helped its profile, and very quickly practically all the Westminster lobby hacks and key MPs were on board. And yet, initially, it appeared to be very much a left-liberal dominated space. The dearth of Tories and the rest led Kerry McCarthy to declare at the 2009 Labour conference that we didn't need the backing of The Sun any more, because we had Twitter. A bit premature perhaps, but already there was an appreciation of how it could body swerve the controls and checks of the establishment media.

Early Twitter was no paradise. There were big fights and bad blood, the red mist descended from time to time and creepy men did their creepy internet thing. But the comparatively small numbers created an illusion of the collapse of social distance and, if anything, expanded the boundaries of Westminster hackery while intensifying the points of contact within it. For a brief period, you could even be feted by the great and the good for compiling a few tweets. But as it evolved, Twitter resembled more the society hosting it. To my mind there were two big changes as we moved into the new decade: the persistent and ubiquitous presence of Justin Bieber trending topics, announcing Twitter was now the plaything of masses of teenagers, and later in 2013 the very public exposure of the platform as a means for harassing and threatening women. This was the first time Twitter - the company - was forced to confront issues of personal security as it blew up in the mainstream media, much to the pleasure of the tabloid press who were now feeling the social media pinch on sales and revenues. This was the moment the block button and report functions were introduced, but here we are six years on and one can still issue rape and death threats with near impunity - as leading women politicians will tell you.

Remember that illusion of a collapse in social distance? More and more people used Twitter as an outlet for their frustrations. Who knew that powerless and voiceless folks would use a social media to directly connect with leading politicians, business people and celebrities and tell them what they think? In Westminster terms, this was most unwelcome. In pre-Twitter days MPs and other media people could insulate themselves from how they were perceived by most. In a constituency surgery, they can move from the occasional ear bashing. On doorsteps one can jog on when faced by an angry punter. The poison pen letter lacks immediacy, and a lackey can ensure the boss never sees it. Twitter took that away. So when sundry Labour MPs started undermining Jeremy Corbyn's leadership by calling into question every decision, briefing against him in the media, and trying their damnedest to obstruct and sabotage they were genuinely shocked to receive "negative feedback". It's a bit like whingeing about getting thrown off a Select Committee because you've resigned from the Labour Party - the very idea their actions would conjure forth repercussions is shocking precisely because far too many of them have spent political lives wrapped in cotton wool.

It wasn't long before informal, intentional groups began emerging out of the froth. There's always been a left Twitter and a right Twitter, but as far as UK politics were concerned we saw the coalescing of the hash tag tribes when the political temperature heated up. UKIP supporters were early adopters, following the media scrum surrounding them between 2013 and 2015. They were trailed by the cybernats who, unsurprisingly enough, were excited into being thanks to the Scottish referendum. The harmless Milifandom was a thing for five minutes, before giving way to the Corbynist Twitter tribe on, um, Twitter. And since the referendum Follow Back Pro Europe did their level best to become the most annoying of the tribes, though they were given a run for their money by the much smaller and not-at-all racist Brexit brigaders. And this is where Twitter is locked. When politics are fraught and there is real polarisation, you can expect it to play out online too.

Given the character of the society in which we live, I suppose this was inevitable for a number of reasons. Twitter, especially politics Twitter, is essential infrastructure now and (mostly) reflects the priorities of bourgeois politics as defined by leading politicians and media gatekeepers. But it is so much more. Like nearly all forms of social media, Twitter has accumulation logics built in. Follower counts, retweets and likes are all proxies for worthiness, of crude measurements of social capital and status. Hundreds of thousands of followers are indicative of wider standing in legacy media, not how good your Twitter game is. Intimately bound with this is the attention economy, of a competition between media products, not least the outpourings of user generated content, between each other and other media all screaming, fighting, demanding attention. As users proliferate, new streaming services come online, more programmes and films are produced, everything, everything is forced into Darwinian combat for eyeballs and time. It's how the political economy works, and by extension those who don't do it for a living are forced into the same game to attract an audience. There is the reactive character of social media, and Twitter in particular - something Richard Seymour has recently written on. That we become participants in the media and its recurrent shit storms. For instance, the anti-semitism wars would not have a sustained presence in mainstream coverage were it not for the constant feeding frenzy as all-comers pile in and react. All analyses, all attempts to try and get to grips with what's happening are drawn into the same inexorable reactive logics, and drives the controversy on and on and on. Of course, the observation capitalist mass cultures valorise reaction over reflection is nothing new. But what is is our consumption by the fray, of analyses ordinarily to spiky for media digestion being fully assimilated into a new political economy of reaction-mass processes. Without wider social change, it's difficult to envisage how this pit can be escaped.

Twitter, like all social media, is more than a simple expression and significant cultivator of neoliberal subjectivity in online spaces. It hooks into the economies of identity production - an increasingly important vector for capital accumulation as well as social control - and by virtue of the networks connects people of like minds, while reinforcing the notion of identity as liberal property rather than as something fluidic that resists and is always surplus to the onslaught of fixed locations that try and pin it down. Hashtag tribes, for example, are enduring and appear fanatical and irrational because their points of fixity deliver rigid cognitive maps largely impervious to nuance, and define themselves in proprietary terms vis a vis binary opposites. Which makes them ideal fuel for the reactive economies of the Twitter feed. However, precisely because there is a surplus of identity, a slippage, the possibility of its overcoming is present through the very same communicative networks that help constitute social media's panoply of neoliberal avatars in the first place. As with all things capitalism touches, the potentials for oppression and liberation are co-present and co-produced, and one aspect of socialist politics is simultaneously a disentanglement and struggle to forge networks into something that challenges capitalist logics.

That, of course, is easier said than done. 10 years on Twitter and I haven't worked it out, despite the mass eruption and rude intrusion of large numbers of people onto the battlefields of British politics - but challenge them we must.


Anonymous said...

Not a day goes by without the mainstream media blaming social media for one thing or another.

The big conclusion from the Christchurch attack was that something needed to be done about social media.

The following were not in any way to blame or were not discussed:

Western wars of supremacy in the middle east
Increasing promotion of military in society (direct correlation between soldiers and far right)
Islamophobia in the corporate media
Racist immigration policies
Casual Islamophobia among liberals, therefore normalising racism.
Justification of direct murder by the white supremacists of Israel, with all political parties literally aligned with these white supremacists murders (20,000+ people shot during the protests at the border, putting the christchurch killer to shame)

No instead of throwing the spotlight on the media of the billionaires we get the spotlight thrown on the social media of the masses.

In many ways the ruling class and its servants in the media have articulated this in the same way as the Christchurch attacker. he used the Rotherham sexual abuse claim to justify the attack while the ruling class used the Christchurch attack to support their authoritarianism, and they also use child abuse to justify their censorship of the internet and often use alleged abuses to justify their killings in the middle east.

The left need to defend freedom of speech, attack censorship and decry the servants of the ruling class (or as they like to call themselves journalists).

Incidentally it is telling that a site (this one), which has routinely played up and exaggerated anti Semtism over the past years while having next to nothing to say about the actual preoccupations of the far right, should remain silent on the Christchurch attack.

We can look at this deafening silence in 2 ways:

1) You recognise the error of your ways and understand how hollow your words would sound


2) You are an islampophobe (racist) and rally just don't give a shit

TheOnlySanePersonOnPlanetEarth said...

The news that British soldiers have been using pictures of Corbyn as target practice reminds us of how anon's point above re the correlation between militarism and the far right is spot on, as are many of their other points.

Of course the increased militarisation of society is another thing we have to thank Blair and the Yvette Cooper loving centre left for. Now the Yvette Cooper loving centre left didn't actually kill Jo Cox but they certainly are complicit. Ironic really.