Social media and the building of a radical clique
Over Christmas, I danced reels in the Airlie Village Hall with people I’ve known for longer than I can remember. I had my mobile phone in my sporran. After some perhaps over vigorous twirling, I found that the screen had broken. Now I can only see what I am doing with the top glowing inch. The result is that when I walk from place to place, or when I sit on trains, I no longer while away the minutes glued to Twitter. Instead, I ring people – usually my siblings or parents.
Malcolm Gladwell tells us that the internet means that we create more bonds, but that they are weaker. And this little story is perhaps an example of that. When deprived of the internet, I communicating less with people who follow me on Twitter – most of whom I have never met – and I spend more time talking to people I love.
But of course Gladwell ‘s point isn’t always true. What the internet really does at its most useful is tap into pre-existing networks and allow us to strengthen them, and allows people to find others online who they can then meet in person.
So, this weekend, a few people responded to my request to come to Oxford and campaign for me – I’m standing in local elections. Those who came were mostly people who I have met in person a number of times – at conferences, or activist type meetings. But with each of them, I have an ongoing relationship through Twitter and Facebook. So, whereas before the internet, I might think “ah, yes, I have met you before”, now I think “that person is my friend”. And presumably they thought, at least, “ah, Adam, I agree with him on this thing and that thing, and so I’m willing to give up my weekend to go and campaign for him”.
In most cases, the people who came to help weren’t people who I first knew through Twitter. But they were people who lived in different cities from me. The nature of my relationship with them – the fact that they would come to help in an election campaign – was altered fundamentally by social media. And it’s not just that they come to campaign for me, or vice versa. Very few of my friends – though some – are people who I first ‘met’ on Twitter. But there are lots of people who I would perhaps otherwise consider acquaintances, but with whom I will now happily get drunk and discuss romantic woes, or do whatever else it is that friends do – the very bonds Gladwell tells us were necessary for the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in. The thing that has changed is that after first meeting people, we can now remain in constant yet informal contact: Gladwell’s weak bonds trace and so strengthen those of face to face human interaction.
Much has been said about how this phenomenon is a good thing. Social media allows us to form genuine communities of interest just as our geographical communities break down. And when those communities of interest are those of progressive activists, it feels powerful. As Paul Mason has observed, these are the kinds of links that people used to hide under trains and smuggle themselves across borders in order to build.
But it makes me worry as well. I’ve written before here about the rise of the international anti-capitalist elite. And for me, this is one of the ways that it entrenches. Rather than activists becoming friends with, and then organising the geographical community, or the community of action in which they live – rather than building strong bonds with our streets, or our work colleagues so that, when push comes to shove, we can turn them out to stand together against power – we spend our time talking to ourselves.
Of course social media is only a small part of a much broader sociological phenomenon – my generation are the children of those who first went bowling alone. With ‘flexible labour markets’ and constant moving for house and job, I often suspect the defining emotion of the jilted generation is loneliness. Of course this leads to a hunt online for people with similar interests. And, of course, talking to ourselves as a movement is a good thing. Unless we can work together – until we feel a part of something – we are working alone and for nothing. Without some of this capacity, many of the best things in Britain in the last couple of years would have been much harder to organise. But as soon as we become a clique, with our own sub-culture, our own language to describe things, and our own, separate understanding of the world, we will cease to have any right to claim to come from a people’s movement. We will just be another elite which thinks it knows best.