Social Media and the Illusion of Action

Excellent time at Apple 8 last night. Dr Luke Bretherton gave a very very good presentation on the place of social media in political action, framing it in terms of the co-evolutionary history of technology and political engagement/communication. The audio and slides should be up this evening.

One of the most interesting points was about the confusion between communication and action. Interaction with social media can make us feel as if we are involved in something, and are doing something. This is a mistake. Luke was very clear: to communicate is not to act; power is still about meeting face to face.

Social media can thus be hugely effectively tools for mobilisation, but we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that online participation is achieving anything concrete. Moreover, social media does not only give us the illusion of action, it can drain energy from real activism as people already feel that they have acted.

The case of Ian Tomlinson was raised in relation to this: 1000’s of people joined the ‘justice for Ian Tomlinson’ Facebook pages…. but when called upon to protest when the CPS delivered a verdict on the possible trial of the police, only 5 people showed up. Which didn’t look too great to the 50 reporters who came to cover it.

I’d be very interested in a further discussion of this, to tease out the distinction between communication and action more carefully. But this has certainly given me a great deal to think about.


9 responses to “Social Media and the Illusion of Action”

  1. Interesting.

    I think this comes out of a category error. Participating online IS an action – but it is what it is. I don’t think most people imagine by signing up to a Facebook page or joining a website or signing an online petition they are making a huge commitment – they’re just agreeing or in Christian terms saying ‘Amen.’ They ‘like’ or join or sign and that is their action finished.

    ISTM that it’s the people who start the Facebook page or the website (or who, at one remove of that, comment on it as if it has a greater significance) who are misunderstanding their actions, not the people who are making those actions.

    There are a number of events going on at the moment (I go to quite a few of them) where Christians get together to discuss in real time how to ‘use’ or ‘harness’ the power of social networking. It’s amazing that you can have an event on social networking which consists of speakers talking and people sitting in rows listening – Shane Hipps in Flickering Pixels points out that this configuration mimics book technology – but you can network in the breaks if you’re really determined to.

    Of course there are people who have learnt a few things about how to do it but it’s striking that many of the innovations that have led to social networking have arisen out of people perceiving a need and working out how to fill it.

  2. Sorry I couldn’t be there last night… I was too busy at home twittering, ha ha.

    I remember being really surprised at the low turnout on the Ian Tomlinson case, but wondered at the time if one factor was that most of the people who joined the FB page weren’t Londoners and just couldn’t travel to an event easily. One 38 Degrees campaign I joined sent out an email at lunchtime calling people to protest outside Parliament at 5 that afternoon… and that’s pretty unrealistic for working people.

    Maybe what these online movements do is pull in lots of people (e.g. me) who rarely venture onto the streets in protest, but who feel that at least they’re doing *something* by emailing their MP or emailing their friends about the issues. It’s not action, but it is awareness-raising.

    Look forward to seeing/hearing the audio and slides.

  3. Disappointed to have missed this one. I would absolutely agree that social media ‘activism’ is about positioning rather than change. Change happens when people who are bound together, in some kind of solidarity, work to be more than the sum of the parts. The very point of social media is the primacy of the individual.

    (This is also why the Lib Dems suck nuts.)

  4. The very point of social media is the primacy of the individual.

    Good point. Thinking about Gladwell’s recent article and the idea of strong and weak ties that he brings up there – I’ve been wondering if a measure of strength might be useful in a social network. For example, your Facebook would ‘forget’ friends you’d had no interaction with (wall posts/events/photos tagged) for a particular period of time. If neither of you had been in touch for 2 years, your friendship would just dissolve away…

  5. Great point about face to face action. While social media is taking us to a whole new level of communication, we simply cannot get away from the power of personal face to face communication. Social media is supposed to help human interaction, not replace it.

  6. Great post, reminds me of a recent article about the “ONE” campaign.

    To my mind this is one of the most visible social justice organizations on the web and among celebrities and when we peek behind the “wall” and look at how it is actually run as an organization we see that they do, “advocacy work, not charity work.” They only claim responsibility for getting the word out, not for actually doing something about it.

  7. For some time, I have viewed Facebook, twitter and Google Reader as 21st century bulletin boards – I let folks know an article was posted, book updates within reason, my travel plans in case we want to connect, invitations to events that might be of interest to them, articles that I found intriguing and the like. And I appreciate others who do likewise as a synergy can be created that can result in a very fruitful discussion. As I continue my travels, these tools help me rethink my identity as a global citizen who happens to be born in the US as opposed to an “American Christian.”

    What I find troubling re: social media campaigns is the false sense of security that it can provide by giving on the illusion that one has “done good” by simply doing a facebook update or a tweet and then going about their day as usual. This is especially true when one joins the herd to promote a “good cause” without reading the fine print. For example, earlier this week, hordes of people tweeted they were “coming out” as straight supporters in honor of National Coming Out Day. A bit of research would have revealed that HRC, the sponsor of this bill has a pretty bad record on trans rights and pretty much focuses on issues of interest to professional gays. So, when these folks said were “coming out,” what were they coming out to support? And what will they do once they come out? (As you’ve documented this isn’t a problem limited to online campaigns as Red for the One Campaign replaces poverty with consumerism, which one can easily argue is a lesser form of repression.)

    I have dismissed petitions, campaigns, etc. for years on the grounds that I’m a writer not an activist and I’m very careful not to conflate the two. But I’ve never seen where a campaign (albeit paper or online signatures or viral facebooking/tweeting) had any leverage unless it was tied to local grassroots advocacy efforts. And that was the genius of the Obama social media campaign – it made that connection and was instrumental in getting Obama elected. BTW, I am buds with one of the guys who was in the field office in Ohio where the campaign originated if you ever want to chat with him.

  8. Thought I should also point out, for those that don’t choose to read the article, that the One campaign takes in just less than 15 million US dollars and of that gave about $200,000 to three charities.

  9. Social Media is a great tool for activism, but I agree. I’m sick of this whole “change your profile picture for this or that cause.”

    Social media will only amplfy who you are. If you’re a person who acts, then that will come across, if not it won’t.