Twitter: horses for courses

Submitted by Matthew on 6 April, 2011 - 10:53

I doubt that the most ardent protagonist of “Twitter revolutions” would disgree with Eric Lee’s statement (“How Twitter is like a horse”, Solidarity 197) that social media such as Twitter and Facebook are tools. That does not get us very far. New tools can create new possibilities and render old tools obsolete. Paul Revere wouldn’t have needed a horse if he’d had a mobile phone.

So the point is not to counterpose old tried and tested methods to “Twitter revolutions” (from whichever side of the argument) but rather to examine what social media can and can’t do to build revolutionary and labour movements.

I feel embarrassed to make these points in response to Eric as he has for many years experimented with new technologies and introduced them to the labour movement and may well agree with much of what I say, but I feel his piece was one of the rather too general, negative responses to the wide-eyed, naive techno-enthusiasts who are telling us that everything — particularly our methods of organisation — has to be remade as a result of new methods of communication.

After Egypt, the question is what function social media can play in such uprisings rather than whether they have any role. Would Tahrir Square have happened anyhow without the initial use of Facebook to draw people together? Quite possibly, as in East Germany in 1989. However, social media did give Egyptian dissidents the confidence that they were not alone and others were prepared to take the same risks and got people to demonstrate at the same time and place, while the marchers in Leipzig were dependent on smaller scale personal contacts and the churches’ networks.

It seems to me established that social media can serve to make new contacts, mobilise people, organise demonstrators and notify both local sympathisers and activists and the outside world of what is happening in real time — all on a larger scale than would otherwise be possible. More controversially, and contrary to prominent sceptic Malcolm Gladwell, they can also serve to create a collective identity and strength and build a conduit for solidarity — none of which is to deny the decisive importance of the other factors Eric mentioned.

But these are only part of the forms of organisation needed to make a revolution. Social media may help to create the negative force necessary to bring down a regime but are of far less use in the more long term aspects of creating and maintaining institutions and organisations that are durable and can win long term commitment and in forming a structure for democratic decision-making, accountability and the formulation of political strategy. These still require largely offline institutions such as unions and parties.

If “Twitter is like a horse”, then it is a question of “horses for courses”, assessing the appropriate and useful tools for our goals and being neither overawed by the “wow” of new technologies nor insisting that the old ways are always better.

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