As I write this, I’m on a train to Sheffield, playing with WordPress on my phone. Which, I think, shows how far we’ve moved from the days of bearded radicals hand-writing pamphlets in a candle-lit basement. (I exaggerate somewhat.) It also offers me the flimsiest of excuses to write about the use of social networks in political organising and activism.
The purpose of social networks – Facebook, Twitter, My Space, etc – is self-explanatory. Keep in touch with friends via the web. Interact, converse, plan events, and post up pictures of said events for the world to see.
The applications of this in the world of grassroots politics are equally obvious. It adds a new dimension to organisation, spreads ideas further, and allows more people to get involved. All of which are definitely positives.
There are some downsides to the whole thing, of course. Nothing in this world is con-free.
For example, putting yourself “out-there” on the web opens you up to enemies as well as potential new comrades. Security should be a priority for activists, especially when involving the inexperienced, or in arenas such as antifascism. And the internet phenomenons of trolls and spammers are an ever-present irritation.
But these are practical problems with practical solutions you develop through practice. There is no set in stone formula, but it’s certainly worth being aware of.
Beyond that, there doesn’t seem much to say. There are no taxing philosophical questions or moral conundrums. It’s a medium; use it to argue your case and get your point across.
So why bring social networking up at all?
Because there is one rather important point to be made. It’s a relatively simple one, but nonetheless it is too often forgotten and the mistake too easily made.
“Activism” on the internet is a compliment to struggles in the real world, not a substitute for it.
I make this point because it is a source of endless frustration. Not just for being asked why I had to organise protests against the BNP when “we’re effectively opposing them on Facebook.” Or hearing how somebody is doing “excellent campaigning” by writing words on their blog. It’s when people who know that action has to be grounded in the real world misjudge what effort needs to go into organising that things go sour.
You cannot organise a demonstration simply by creating an event on Facebook, or by sending an email. You have to talk to people on the ground, plan what you want to happen and where you want it to go. You have to know there will be people there, to arrange transport and stewards where neccesary.
In other words, you need to actively organise the event. Then you can put it on Facebook, Twitter, and your blog. But there is a growing tendency to cut out the background effort, and it doesn’t just make your event flop, it demobilises people.
This may be fine for the lazy left, concerned only with paper sales and shows of faux-radicalism, but if you want to actually do something effective, it’s not acceptable.
Likewise, you cannot “campaign” via a blog. You can utilise it as an additional medium, as I do, but even the most popular blogs are obscure beyond political and activist circles. They are no substitute for building support at the grassroots, whether door-to-door or over a stall table, the bulk of campaigning has to be done face to face.
In general, social media are a great way to keep in touch with people. But if you limit your interactions with others to the internet your social life fails. Likewise, in activism, they are an excellent tool to use. But if you neglect the grasroots, it’s all just mental masturbation.
Especially as it becomes all pervasive, and we can carry it everywhere, this is an important point. The internet and social media are extremely useful and have a myriad of uses. But there is life beyond them.