Fast paper

All debates about the influence of social media come down to this. It is just fast paper. Was anyone expecting anything else? I mention this because The Observer today contains a summary of the Gladwell v Shirky spat over the power of Twitter, and while it’s presented as an argument, both of them are basically offering versions of the ‘fast paper’ argument.

Gladwell’s thesis is that social media campaigning doesn’t change anything. Retweeting a hashtag, clicking the ‘like’ button and slapping a twibbon (ick) on your avatar are all heart-warming acts of self-congratulation – a little pat on your own back in recognition of your very fine moral nature – but they don’t have any influence on the real world.

The Shirky response is, more or less, ‘Duh.‘ Some people overstated the case for Twitter activism during the Green Uprising in Iran, but just because social media couldn’t overthrow a government doesn’t mean it isn’t good at other stuff. It’s a communications tool: it’s good at conveying information and emotions. Gladwell is just arguing with the Quixotic extreme when he says, “”Enthusiasts for social media would no doubt have us believe that [Martin Luther] King’s task in Birmingham, Alabama, would have been made infinitely easier had he been able to communicate with his followers through Facebook, and contented himself with tweets from a Birmingham jail.”

But campaigners aren’t now using social media instead of direct action; they’re using it to inform and motivate direct action, and to change attitudes. One good example is the It Gets Better Project, launched by Dan Savage in response to the suicides of bullied gay teenagers. It’s a very simple civil rights campaign, in which gay adults upload videos to YouTube describing how their lives have improved since the grim days high school. Pre-social media, it’s the kind of guidance that could perhaps only come about through personal ads and penpal friendships: YouTube makes it possible to broadcast support. You could criticise it for not being the Stonewall riots, but a first-person account of a happy adult life probably beats smashing up a nightclub when it comes to helping these kids.

The truth is that all causes everywhere come with a lot of badge-wearing hangers-on, and even street level activism is enormously inefficient. I don’t think I’m doing myself a disservice when I say that my contribution to the anti-war movement (shuffling around Sheffield city centre, wearing a pillowcase skirt with “NOT IN MY NAME” screen printed on the arse) could have been left undone without harming the overall cause of the Stop The War Coalition. Bluntly, if you’re involved in a protest it’s probably because you’re basically powerless, and you’re not going to get everything what you want anyway. 60 years on from the Montgomery Bus Boycott, there are mainstream media organisations pimping the deceit that ‘black’ is synonymous with ‘unamerican’, and 50 years post Stonewall, gay teens are still being bullied to death. Even the most powerful campaigns are only skirmishes in long, slow and sometimes sorrowful struggles.

Yes, social media gives a lot more people the opportunity to be telescopic philanthropists, sitting at our desks plugging our email addresses into petition forms. But that’s purely a function of campaigns being able to reach a lot of people – and useless as these pixel-level gestures may be at bringing about the object they’re supposedly aimed at, they do at least demonstrate and encourage a movement of attitudes leading to long-term change. In terms of campaigning, you’d be a goddamn fool to keep organising flyer drops and forget to update your Facebook group, just because Facebook gives you the dispiriting ability to see who’s lost interest, whereas your flyers never report back when they end up in the bin. And in terms of places to wear a political slogan, I’m going contra Gladwell and saying that ‘in my Twitter feed’ is probably an improvement over ‘on my arse’. Neither does much. But fast paper does it where a few more people will see.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010; photo by arimoore, used under Creative Commons