This post is in response to a funny thing that happened a couple days ago on Facebook. Gerry Canavan comments on it here: throughout the day, “thousands” of Facebook users posted a pro-health care-reform message as their ‘status update’ in a sudden outbreak of ‘viral activism.’ The whole thing peaked when Obama himself joined in. Watch the virus spread here.
As Gerry puts it:
We saw the same phenomenon early in the summer during Iran’s so-called Twitter Revolution, which had two overlapping and sometimes conflicting modes: the use of Twitter by people within Iran as a organizing and news-distributing tool and the use by people *outside* Iran for the purposes of vicarious participation in political struggle. Then, as now, the important thing is to signal you’re on the right side of a fight in which you are otherwise just a spectactor — then by tinting your Twitter avatar green and now by posting a shared slogan as your status update and then leaving it altered for the rest of the day. We could go back to 2008 and 2004 elections, or to any number of other charged moments, and find similar memes at play.
The question posed by this sort of thing is clear enough: should it count as ‘real’ activism or is it just a mass twitch in the general direction of utopia, a show put on for the official media and for ourselves.
Any answer has to start by considering it as quite literally a form of consumerism. It’s a full step further in that direction than the email activism of organizations like MoveOn, which rely on the recipient to take some sort of minimal action, like making a phone call, writing a protest email, signing a petition, which MoveOn transfers directly to its prearranged target, usually a professional decision maker. These older forms are carried onto Facebook as well, but they’re weaker on this platform, easier to ignore, and require different techniques to get them to work. A ‘status update’ or a ‘tweet’ can superficially seem more democratic — after all, no institution is telling the user what to do. But in practice this ‘act’ is identical to the ‘choice’ of the market.
That our very existences on social networking sites are commodities is an often overlooked fact. Given an existence wholly circumscribed by a virtual marketplace, everything we do, everything we post, is potentially a commodity by virtue of its link to ‘us.’ In ‘viral activism,’ by reproducing a more or less homogeneous message (a ‘meme,’ one of the few instances where the word actually refers to something), a population makes itself available as a single commodity for use by others in exchange for individual use of the same message as a ‘status update’: an advertisement that promotes a certain identity to their ‘friends’ (and to themselves). The only difference between this and any other Facebook content is that this ‘mega-meme’ is produced ‘from the ground up.’
These are not simply semantic distinctions — they have consequences. Virtual activists do not organize themselves in the way real activists do, i.e. form permanent or temporary political units such as parties, mobs, parades, whatever, directed toward a specific set of goals. Even when activists remain law-abiding their actions are intended to stage a confrontation, to disrespect boundaries that may not be acknowledged by the law. A social division is made, exchange relations dependent on certain forms of equivalence are foreclosed (i.e. politeness, personal space, a traffic intersection, etc.). As long as it’s part of a larger strategy from the beginning, this is true even of petition-signing. Virtual activists on the other hand are always responding to/initiating various types of interpolation from within an institutional setting (the site’s apparatus) that automatically neutralizes all it touches, like ‘interactive’ television. A Facebook group is just a passive ‘tag,’ another identity accessory for the individual user and a commodity that passively awaits outside use (a social ad). As long as their virtual existence is immanent with that institution (they remain members), all actions are wholly included within it, with zero remainder.
What are social ads good for? By aggregating the many status updates into a single product, they provide something for the bigger blogs and journalists to ‘report’ on (really just an outgrowth of tagging), and from which a political meaning can be derived or invented. First and foremost they generate conversation, and since most of it will refer to Facebook if not occur on its platform they also indirectly generate more Facebook use and more prestige, a ‘status update’ for Facebook itself. Whether or not any of this can ‘make a difference’ is dependent upon how these commodities are employed by others.
The effects of this latest capture of the social reflect how our tiny plots of spectacular real estate turn us into micro-celebrities, where even to contemplate ‘action’ forces us into a narcissistic obsession with our public image, no matter how inconsequential it may be. Celebreality shows and the higher profile of porn stars in recent years show us that has-beens and nobodies fighting for table scraps will play the game of recognition even more ferociously than Hollywood royalty. The public face of this private complex is when celebrities, politicians-as-celebrities, or now you-as-celebrity endorse certain causes, ultimately all responsibility rests on YOU to act, even as the possibilities for action of the relatively elite YOU being addressed (the YOU who can be expected to take Them seriously) are increasingly observed, micromanaged, routed into narrower and more regulated pathways.
A final comparison to opinion polling is helpful in getting at the ideological function of social activertising. Unlike polls, the opinions of users don’t appear as already existing truths, dependent on the work of experts on ‘real’ demographics, but those truths actively expressed. Where a poll is employed in speculation — what x group ‘really thinks’ at a given moment is valuable as evidence for what actions they might take in the future — a wave of status updates or green-tinted Twitter profiles appear to assert themselves as political facts. No research or fact-checking need be done to evaluate truth claims when the phenomena is just the free and unsolicited manifestation of truth, like votes or sales figures. These ‘actions’ thus merge the legitimacy of a poll with the immediacy of activism. Virtual activism is more real than statistics (which are ‘always’ rigged), more legitimate than protests (which are ‘always’ dangerous).
Jonathan Singer (see link above):
While the vast majority of the political organizing I see on Facebook tends to come from the same names — friends working in politics on a full time basis — what is remarkable here is that these status updates containing a strong and clear message in favor of healthcare reform are coming not only from the political community but also from those whose lives are not immersed in these fights. These are regular young people, all around the country, speaking out in favor of reform. This movement is impressive and surprising, and, at least from this vantage, quite newsworthy.
This is what everyone said about Iran, the rhetoric directing us to understand these movements as made up of “everyday” people, free of the supposed dangers and ‘biases’ of ‘professional’ activists. Of course there is a selection process for which ideas can ‘filter up’ from the social network ‘netroots’ and what kinds of users can do what that tends not to be acknowledged. This selection process is, broadly speaking, class-based.
Here is a great article on one example of how class manifests online, the great divide between Myspace and Facebook with some very illuminating (and horrifying) quotes from teenagers. Facebook has clearly won the PR battle, easy to do when the New York Times’ reporting staff and most of its readership is made up of Facebook users. Facebook is the appropriate platform for politics, just as Myspace is the appropriate platform for your ex’s rock band and various sex offenders. This doesn’t even count the selection process for who gets to be on the Internet to begin with. And yet, through the magic of social networking, it is the Facebook community which is quickly establishing itself in the 24-hour image universe as the new legal-utopian definition of ‘the people.’ The obvious impossibility of this fantasy doesn’t mean it won’t have certain effects.
For a demonstration, let’s put on some ruling class spectacles and look at some pictures. Isn’t this:
infinitely preferable to this?
See? You didn’t even have to think about it.