18 August 2013

You will not be able to lose yourself on Tweets and Likes

There will be no pictures of police shooting down brothers in the Instagram retweet
ADW, from Pricks and Mortars, South Street Studios, Dublin, 23rd October, 2011
We live in a glorious golden future, my friends. We may not have solved world hunger, be living on the moon or going to work in flying cars, but thanks to the miracle of the internet we enjoy an unprecedented level of communication that facilitates the explosion of true participatory democracy not just here, but across the world. The miracle of the wikinomics long-tailed flat-world is now within the grasp of every global citizen thanks to solar panels and balloons, and political power no longer grows out of the barrel of a gun, but from the beak of a little blue bird.

The trope of social media as a radical effector of global change seemed to have first arisen in the Iranian uprisings in 2009. Unprecedented column inches were devoted to the idea that Twitter was fuelling the revolution, that the US Government had asked the company to delay a server upgrade that could inadvertently cut off communications between various protest groups, that the tool which apparently had propelled Obama to election victory could usher in a new wave of Hope and Change (TM) around the world.  My Twitter streams were filled with people who turned their avatar green in solidarity with those on the streets of Tehran (green being the colour worn by the protestors on the ground to identify themselves and their struggle, the campaign colour of failed presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi whose defeat sparked the initial protests), and the new digital revolution looked like it would finally fulfil its promise and enable actual real-world revolution.

Of course none of this was actually true, but the media never let the truth get in the way of a good story about US technology triumphing against the Axis of Evil. 

As a recent post by Liat Clark on Wired UK put it:
"For one, those leading the debate on Twitter appeared to have followers mainly based in the US. At that time it was also difficult to search Twitter in Farsi. Speaking to Wired US, author of Internet & Politics in Post-revolutionary Iran Babak Rahimi said, "The Twitter factor is present, but not as significant as, say, cell phone or social networking sites... I just wonder (or worry) how the US media is projecting its own image of Iran into what is going here on the ground"."
Clark goes on to quote a survey taken a year after the protests occurred by the Annenberg School for Communication's Centre for Global Communication Studies (CGCS), with almost 3,000 internet-using Iranians, mostly under 30:
"What they found countered long-held assumptions that Twitter was central to the 2009 protests. In fact, Twitter was the least popular platform, with only 17 percent using it to share or follow tweets. The internet was, however, cited as the most popular avenue. The web is heavily censored in Iran, and since state television fell just behind the internet as the second most prevalent source of news, it could be deduced the message they were getting from those two sources vastly differed from those being read on Twitter in the US and elsewhere.

The study also points out that its respondents found the survey online at website 4shared, so it's likely the internet was always going to win out among these interviewees. Keeping this in mind, it's perhaps even more telling that those who chose the internet first, still discounted Twitter as a main source of information. Family and friends came in third, with 49 percent, followed by print media at 42 percent and work and school at 33 percent."
After the failure of the Green Revolution, the media looked for the next story to impose their narrative upon, and when popular protests quickly erupted on Tunisa and Egypt, Western media was quick to dub these the Facebook or Twitter Revolutions. Here again this false narrative was an imposition of cultural imperialism, the US attempting to fabricate a central role for itself through the technology born of its free-market magnificence, a salve to make it feel better for financially and militarily supporting the brutal dictatorships that people were now laying down their lives to overthrow.

As Hazim Kandil explained in New Left Review:
"Abroad, the impression is widespread that Facebook was the leading medium in the uprising, and it was certainly critical for the younger generation in the first few days of the protests. But for most ordinary Egyptians, the talk shows were much more widely accessible. Once the uprising was under way, they would invite the demonstrators to come onto the shows, they would interview policemen, reporters, businessmen, serving as an open forum for discussion. The effect was very powerful."

- Hazim Kandil, New Left Review 68, March/April 2011
Late last week I was writing a commercial post for a tech website, focusing on the role that social media can play in developing our understanding of global events beyond our immediate social circles. Trying to be a little more upbeat about it all than I generally am on these pages, I focused on the use of social media as a tool for those far from an event to educate themselves, beyond the editorial filters of old media, and I chose to focus on the Egyptian revolution of 2011:
As people all across the globe stood up to take back control of their own destinies, the media quickly dubbed the popular uprisings, 'The Twitter Revolutions'. Our television screens were filled with pictures of people taking to the streets, using their smartphones to connect and coordinate with each other, uploading their struggle to the world.

Sitting in Dublin I tried to follow what was happening on Social Networks, but it quickly became clear that this was not as easy as it first seemed. Although events may have been organised on Facebook, not being an Arabic speaker it was impossible for me to follow any of the public conversations happening on group pages. As I didn't know anybody directly on the ground in Egypt, my social circle on Facebook couldn't provide any first-hand information.

Twitter seemed to offer a better solution, as the #tahrir hashtag arose and was used to mark Tweets discussing events in Egypt. However it quickly became clear that the majority of Tweets using the #tahrir hashtag did not originate from Egypt, rather they were from people all around the world discussing events that they were watching on television. There were individual updates coming from participants and eyewitnesses on the ground which were widely retweeted, but so many more eyewitness accounts were getting lost in all the noise.

There was an amazing amount of useful information on Social Networks, but finding it amongst all that noise proved almost impossible.
Most likely this post will now never see the light of day, for twenty-four hours after I wrote it, Egypt once again descended into bloody chaos as the army that had overthrown the democratically elected President moved to clamp down on dissent from his supporters, and committed many appalling atrocities in the process. To watch the pictures coming from Cairo and beyond was to see history repeating itself as tragedy; the streets were filled with people fighting for their rights, calling for a restoration of democracy while defining tanks and bullets with their lives.

Any yet this time there was no Californian-triumphalism, no breathless posts on the power of Facebook, no golden-dawning of a new technological age of participatory empowerment. This time, the protesters on the streets fighting for their rights were not the sort of people we wanted to have rights, they were "radical Islamists" and the army that was brutally surprising them was in fact preserving secularism and the modern Egypt from the hordes of religious fundamentalism. Instead of the "how great are we to have enabled this flowering of democracy through our Venture Capital funds?" stories came the "aw, shucks, we tried to stop it all from happening, but sure what can you do?" articles from the hegemonic mouthpieces of US economic and foreign policy.

Just as social media enables passivism (the replacement of actual activism with online activism wherein a lot of chatter and hand-wringing occurs on pages, threads and forums but the streets remain empty and no real change ever occurs), trumpeting the role of social media was a proxy for actual concrete action by western governments and their media, and a way of masking their own decades-long support for the regimes that were now being toppled.

However the narrative imposed by old media is not the main reason why social networks are an ineffective tool for social change, the problem itself is what I called out as 'Noise". Social networks are drowning in it.

As the citizens of Egypt mourned their dead and vowed to take to the streets once more, Twitter trends, a list of the most popular new topics being discussed on the social network, was topped by the hasthtag #larryshippers. A false rumour had arisen that a number of fans of a boy-band had killed themselves after being mocked by other fans in the aftermath of a television documentary on the band's fanbase. The Twittersphere was flooded by teens mourning for these (apparently) imaginary victims. The outpouring of imagined outrage and grief displaced any digital trace of real outrage and grief for the actual victims in Egypt, which today occupy no spot in Twitter's top ten list.

55% of Twitter users are 35 or older. Only 8% of Twitter users fall in to the under-18 age group that would make up the typical fanbase of a boy-band, yet they generate enough tweets to consistently keep the objects of their desire trending. This means that few topics of the day generate enough of a consensus amongst the mature majority of users that they appear in the trends list. So what is everyone else talking about?

Back in 2009 Pear Analytics took a look at two week's worth of English-language tweets and determined that over 40% of all content on Twitter was "pointless babble", with only 8.7% of all Tweets containing something of worth that could be shared, what they called "pass-along value" (full report here, .pdf link). Mainstream news of the type covered by traditional media outlets faired even less well, accounting for only 3.6% of Twitter content.

A lot has changed in four years, but the amount of noise on Twitter hasn't.

Social networks are not to blame here, their technology is only a tool. What they are though is a shaming mirror to our own essential triviality. We could discuss anything we want online, but what we want to talk about is football, and television, and teen crushes. What we want is distraction from the horror of reality, the evil that we perpetrate upon each other. What social media does is not to educate or enlighten, but to protect and cocoon - it gives as an entire alternative world where we are free to indulge in our baser trivialities and ignore the injustices around us.

There is value to be found in social media, but we must battle through the pointless babble of the noise to find the signal obscured deep inside. The trouble is, wallowing in the noise is so easy. Fighting for the signal is hard.

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