Escalate Collective: a critique of a critique

The Escalate Collective has recently published its latest essay/communique/article/post about events on the 26th March demo which is definitely worth reading.

Escalate, a collective of writers and activists from within the University of London, seems to be the closest we have to Tiqqun here in the UK and at this particular time. For that they should be commended.

On reflection I think I prefer their first essay but in both communiques they unpick key issues unfolding within current events by charting a path direct through centre of the problem. And by that, I don't mean they adopt a middle ground as position for analysis. Rather, they split issues down the middle; break them open; expose the vacuity… I'll end the metaphor there. It's late and you get the idea.

What gets a big thumbs up from me is the inclusion of 'social media' in their list of targets for critique. Their analysis isn't always spot on but crucial contributions include the following:

Escalate challenge the misrepresentation of "social media as panacea". While this is a crucial criticism that addresses and undermines both pro- and anti-technology camp's arguments the collective also over-state the case somewhat. Let's unpack their critique.

Firstly, technology – and in particular Twitter and Facebook – are critiqued for being glorified as radical tools for emancipation. The collective writes:

"The praise Twitter and Facebook have received is matched only by the compliments showered on a mythical young generation who have supposedly expropriated the potentials within this technology for radical means."

It's their belief that this myth hides the reality that social media – incorporating their broader definition, "web-based media" – is of course a commodity. A commodity that young people consume and of course which is as radical as tie-dye t-shirts were for the Soixante Huitardes: "the only victory can be further consumption, this time of web-based goods."

In fact, it gets worse than this. Not only is social media a de-radicalised consumer commodity but it's a commodity whose consumption is undertaken as part of what Jodi Dean has termed 'communicative capitalism' – that is (perhaps stating it too strongly): "Web 2.0 is a political trap that disempowers political action" by grounding it in endless discussion, debate and content circulation.

Grounding this emergent concept in more classical Marxist terms, Escalate point out that: 

"Software corporations and PR agencies have entire departments devoted to astro-turfing and the countering of malevolent online publicity. Professional journalists and salaried unionists have the advantage of time and often resources to invest in their Twitterfeeds and Facebook friends."

The initial criticism is arguably wide of the mark – although I utterly understand where the writers are coming from here. For instance, why pick out software corporations? Odd choice – software corps aren't really at the front-end of current political debate as they make software. I put this down to a misunderstanding.

In terms of PR agencies, I'm fairly confident I can say that my dalliances with a couple of very big PR firms' digital teams has shown me that a) many high-profile firms they are not involved in intentionally astro-turfing (to the point of proactively avoiding anything that could be mistaken – although this policy has not always prevented it) and b) "whole departments" in my experience means less than 30 and usually a lot less (the implication for me here is that we're talking 100s as per the Chinese Government's 50 Cent Army) and never the whole department working on a single client.

On the latter point of journalists and union reps I do agree. It is a solution offered by economic capital – perhaps a wider critique missed here: the volunteeristic power of social media is based on social capital. A significnat benefit in circumstances where social relationships are all that's needed to negotiate an outcome. But by injecting economic capital into the mix you get a relational imbalance and if that relational imbalance is desired to misdirect, destabilise or destroy networks of relationships then it can be highly effective – providing you have the resource to scale. Refer back to China's 50 Cent Army.

Escalate also reject another misperception perpetuated through the media and some enthusiastic activists and academics. That is, the binary of social media and horizontality. This is a long-standing bugbear: just because something occurs via the web or social media doesn't make it horizontal.

Yes, the rhizomatic structure of the web often sets the default organisational settings to non-hierarchical networks but care is needed to ensure this myth doesn't end up hiding more deeply set hierarchies and power relations. And lest we forget: horizontal organising can – and does – take place outside of virtually networked structures.

Linked to this, another major critique of social media arises, again from media and organisational misperceptions of what the social web is and how it functions.

Escalate argue:

"Many organisations enjoy the perceived leaderlessness of Twitter and Facebook because of how clearly this myth masks the mechanisms of privilege and capital power which allow leadership to emerge when any network is left unchecked."

While I broadly agree with their conclusion that the "perceived leaderlessness" within social media allows privilege (presumably time-based and technological knowledge) and capital power to allow leadership to emerge this statement is useful because it points to a wider theme that runs through much of Escalate's analysis of social media.

Namely that social media, Twitter, Facebook, "web-based media", etc are interchangable, homogenous wholes when in reality they aren't.

While this methodological short-cut still allows Escalate to make incisive and accurate critique of conteporary politics, media and capitalism, it means that there is arguably a much more deeper analysis and (potentially constuctive) critique that could be made.

I say potentially constructive because this is something I'm thinking and writing about at the moment: how analysis of the complexities of the social web and its components can be used to achieve a greater understanding of forms of resistance.

Perhaps now isn't the time to go into the detail, but perhaps take a look at this recent conference abstract  for an idea of what I'm talking about.

Finally – and most glibly – the collective's approach to writing anonymously overcomes some of the ego issues that definitely can be seen within the liberal/left blogo- and Twittersphere. It's a breath of fresh air and allows – IMHO – a much more radical exploration of contemporary issues to be broached.

 

 

 

 

Activism, Clicktivism and the limits of social media in achieving social change

Last month, Malcolm Gladwell published a piece in The New Yorker arguing that social media was preventing real social change taking place by encouraging what he termed 'clicktivism' – a form of engagement and action based on weak social ties, rather than real-life activism based on strong ties.

Of course, Gladwell’s piece was mostly a straw-man argument concocted to earn him some column inches and boost his profile between book launches. And of course it generated a number of impassioned rebuttals from the social movement and NGO communities.

However, while Gladwell was wrong on most counts, the past week has started to reveal the faultlines within social media and activism.

Drawing on the fall-out from the student demonstrations in central London last week (for those wanting a back-story, see the LRB’s fantasic essay on why the government's cuts are driven by ideology rather than economic necessity) we can argubly see clear limitations to the power of social networking and social change.

First of all, there was zero mobile phone signal for many students during the march which meant people were unable to live-tweet, live-blog or upload images and video in real-time. I’m not sure if there was an explanation for the outage, but it had the same effect regardless: people were unable to live-report and co-ordinate actions online from the heart of the demonstration.

And I didn’t see the Home Office intervening and encouraging mobile networks to fix any problems to cope with increased demand as with the 'Iranian Twitter revolution'.

Secondly, the pitfalls of being a digital native became all to clear to students involved in potentially criminal activity whose actions were uplaoded to social networking sites and shared with the world – especially the media who had a field day harvesting and publishing photography and video of students engaged in direct action.The BBC reports in lurid – and somewhat pointless – detail about this while the Telegraph set up a distasteful 'shop-a-student' section [No link, sorry. Refuse to]. As this was the first action for a lot of students, many failed to ‘mask up’ or conceal their identity.

Thirdly, once the media witch-hunt began and the police started rounding up suspects support and solidarity networks sprang to life via blogs and Twitter offering advice for people involved in the demo as well as  campaigning to raise funds for those facing charges.

However it would seem that the police are pretty good at spotting these websites – largely hosted on corporate blogging platforms or hosting providers – and pressuring the provider to pull the entire site. The most high profile example to date has been Fitwatch, a blog dedicated to reporting on the police Forward Intelligence Teams who take photos of people suspected of being linked to all manner of lawful protests and adding their profiles to a huge database.

Fitwatch (re)posted advice (widely available on the web) providing guidance on how to deal with the fall-out of the demo which resulted in the entire site being removed by its host, Just Host – purely on the say so of an acting detective inspector, Will Hodgeson, from the Met Police's CO11 section.

As of tonight Fitwatch is still offline, despite the Guardian taking up their case.

So, while Gladwell argued that the "revolution won't be tweeted", he sadly might be closer to the truth then he intended – and definitely more than social change campaigners hope he is.