Politics and social media

December 2009

Houses of parliamentWe are in a society in the midst of a technological shift that is arguably the deepest and most profound in the history of the world. In the last 30 years we have moved from an age of mass communication to one of communicating masses. In the era of one to many print and broadcast media the general population was increasingly the object rather than the subject of politics.

The ideal of a public sphere in which rational individuals debate matters of shared interest to form a coherent public opinion was seen to have given way to a society of the spectacle. In such a society politics is performed to a passive and distracted public, more interested in entertainment than intellectual engagement. But has the internet now changed all that? 

The internet is many to many, one to many, many to one, one to one - or any configuration one cares to imagine. At the core of this configuration, and what provides such potential power to the masses, is the fact that the internet is a scale-free network. That is, there is no limit to the numbers of connections that can be made to an individual node.

The world wide web harnesses the power of the internet by making it user friendly, putting a seamless screen over the mechanics of the system and harnessing the power of computers to process digital information in any form it cares to. A medium of media that turns any user into a producer and producers into re-mixers, that opens up a structurally non-hierarchical relationship between all its users in itself is going to change the nature of power, and politics with it.

From the 1990s to the early 2000s the world wide web became the killer app for the world, revolutionising communications, commerce, and access to information. Yet it remained oddly one directional, websites were often static portals displaying information, interactivity limited to a choice of what to look at or click on. Anyone could set up a website but they still tended towards display not interaction.

The phenomenon of popular blogging sites in the late 1990s meant an opportunity for a whole new kind of publishing opened up. With blogging came some of the first truly notable challenges to traditional political power. It was a blog, The Drudge Report, which broke the Monika Lewinski story, while The Huffington Post and Boing Boing are reckoned by The Guardian newspaper to be the two most influential blogs in the world.

In the UK, somewhat lagging in the influence of bloggers, there are political blogs: ‘Guido Falkes’, on the right, and on the left ‘Left Foot Forward’ have garnered significant influence. No politician who wants to capture young votes can afford to be without one, but their usual feeble efforts are a reminder of the pace and innovation of the digital domain.

Yet despite the growing influence of political blogging and the opening up of political commentary to many individuals who have been traditionally excluded they are still a relatively one-way use of the technology, and in that regard they tend to replicate the editorial form of existing news media. Only with the emergence in the mid 2000s of a range of web 2.0 applications have we caught a glimpse of the true potential of the Internet in the political sphere.

Time magazine famously celebrated ‘You’ as 2006’s person the year, on the cover a reflective square presented the reader back to him or herself as the star of the show. Web 2.0 has begun to do something that was always possible, but which the multimedia web for a while forgot about: true interactivity. The early internet was built on it; Usenet was the network built entirely of the conversations of its users, but it was a few thousand users - not many million.

The introduction of social networking utilities to millions of web users has reproduced that capacity of interactivity with some killer additional elements, the power of broadband always on networking, mobile computing, and user-friendly interfaces. First there was MySpace, still somewhat living in the older paradigm of the personal web page, then Facebook, which first demonstrated the immense networking power now available, by connecting together millions who themselves generate the content of the site.

While Facebook has showed political promise with its groups built around causes, some with many thousands of members, they have had limited impact. The real potential of scale-free networking has been revealed with Twitter. Twitter connects people in such a way that clusters of like minded people speak and listen to each other, thus generating virtual meeting places that spread out from small clusters into vast arenas of interaction. One tweet can go from a few followers to millions in minutes, and always-on internet in handheld computers and phones means it is truly ubiquitous. This turns each individual with a phone or a laptop into a multitude waiting to happen.

In fact it is happening already, one Tweet from the Editor of the Guardian explodes via his followers into a national cause for freedom of speech, undermining attempts to gag the press in a few hours. In Iran organisation of street protests via Twitter gave protesters the capacity to outsmart the authorities.

Likewise at the G20 protests in London earlier this year protesters was transformed from a mob into a multitude of separate but cooperating individuals, working together, shifting tactics, sharing ideas - all in real time and on the move. Where this will go remains open, serious research needs to be done to come to terms with this, and we are only just beginning to even think about the right questions to ask. These are early days, but the writing is on the wall for politics as business as usual.

Dr Joss Hands is Co-Director of ARCDigital (Anglia Research Centre in Digital Culture) at Anglia Ruskin University, and author of ‘@ is For Activism’, due out in 2010.

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