There is a huge irony that the “new social media” activist movement has found itself today in Congress House having an old-fashioned face-to-face discussion, with face-to-face networking at the Netroots UK event. The fact that you had to already be connected with these people on twitter, or if you’re lucky facebook, or be a reader of quite specific blogs, to know about this event adds to the irony of a movement that is claiming to be horizontal in a manner that avoids elites.
I, sitting in the library this morning, decided to alert attendees of the Netroots conference to this irony by twitter this morning. I made a claim that even if the new media did not exist, we would use the age-old methods of phoning people up or meeting face-to-face to organize actions. Indeed, that’s entirely what UK Uncut did at the beginning (and still do), with their “meeting in a pub”. Indeed the strength and number of activists has, in contrast to Clifford Singer’s claims (thanks for the hat-tip in the Grauniad btw Clifford) been 1) reporting in the traditional mass-media by the likes of Johann Hari, 2) already existing networks such as climate camp, 3) traditional parties backing it and telling their members to turn up (see my piece on this from a few months back), and 4) again face-to-face radicalization in the rather non-new-media setting of university occupations where people sit down together and discuss politics.
I am not claiming that social media is not useful, nor am I claiming that it hasn’t given a voice to people who previously were unconnected to activist movements, but I think we need a level of suspicion about claims that technology can be the political basis for new movements. Furthermore we should be aware that despite claims of horizontality in social networks is actually based on quite the opposite. Social networks as we know them through twitter are pyramidal in structure. The ability to contact lots of people is the same as the ability to contact one or two well connected people at the top of the network to throw things back down to the grass-roots. He who shouts the loudest (or already has the best organized networks) is the most heard, and this remains a problem. If your comment is contentious enough, if you’re already well connected, or if you hit something Zeitgeist-y (as we did with water cannons) you have a chance, yes, just a chance of spreading the message.
Indeed in claiming that we could do activism just as well with a phone-book and traditional modes of networking I was accused by Guy Aitchison of OpenDemocracy and the UCL Occupation of being politically élitist. On the contrary, Maeve McKeown of Student Theory tweeted this morning “#netrootsuk Where are all the schoolchildren who were so crucial in the protests?” If nothing else has pointed to the new élitism of this movement, her tweet has. We should, of course, try to use the new media, but we must be aware of its limitations, not kid ourselves about how big this movement is getting by making the obfuscatory claim that the new media allows us to talk to everyone all the time. The student occupations in the last months even failed to talk to each other effectively. Those of us who tried our hardest to put them all in contact know this failure only too well.