Facebook: the medium, the message and the Marxists

Submitted by AWL on 11 March, 2014 - 9:02

Martin Thomas’ article ‘Socialism, CPA and Facebook’ (SCPAF) in Solidarity 305 outlines some problems that emerge from the integration of social media into everyday life and its interaction with the culture of the left.

Constant “noise” and distraction leading to a neglect of serious reading, erosion of the conditions for serious debate given a lack of depth to high speed responses, online abuse and diversion from offline politics are all real.

The article relates these factors to more general social effects of the internet such as the decline of print media, an individualised access to knowledge and a tendency to behave with less constraint online, which in turn feed back into the culture and practices of the left.

All the things he describes exist to a greater or lesser extent. Recent examples of the damaging impact of social media on the left include the feminist flame wars in the US discussed in The Nation and the role of Facebook in the split in the International Socialist Network. Where I wish to supplement and criticise his article is in his analysis of why they occur and his suggestions for remedying them.

SCPAF ascribes them to psychology (“continuous partial attention”), technology, specifically Facebook, and politics in the form of a general decline in left culture relating to both the legacy of Stalinism and defeats in the class struggle. His article fails to link these factors or contextualise them in terms of recent developments in capitalism. As a result explains the problems as individual failings in the face of a technology which bears down on its users. Consequently Martin’s solution is just to urge the left to turn off their computers more often and read more books.

What then are the causes, how do they relate to the technology of Facebook and the culture of the left? A good starting point is the shifts in the relationship between time and information in the capitalism of the last 25 years, which have been both enabled by and helped shape developments in information and communication technology.

Speed up has taken place not merely in the sphere of capital accumulation with shorter product cycles, financial transactions undertaken at close to the speed of light, and fast responses to changes in market conditions. It also occurs at work where the time taken for many activities is closely monitored and the line between work and leisure time is often blurred. In everyday life outside work, time pressures continue, change is faster and the expectation — or demand — is of constant and rapid communication.

At the same time the amount of information available has grown massively. Globalised capital is dependent on computerised information flows to manage complex international production processes, to respond rapidly to changes in demand, to enable financial activity and to advertise. Both in and out of work, more information is delivered in an unending cycle and growing quantity. Personalised media such as blogs have added in the last ten years to a expanding volume of interlinked and easily accessible online information which is constantly changing and becoming ever more central to everyone’s everyday living.

Once one’s online social connections or interests go beyond a certain minimal level, it becomes impossible to deal thoroughly with all the information one seeks and receives, making filtering a necessity whether we undertake it ourselves or leave it to the software of search engines, spam filters and social media.

The situation of having too much information, too little time leads to pressure on the individual’s attention and ability to absorb and process the information in depth.

This is recognised not merely by the advocates of an “attention economics” who adapt mainstream economics by making attention a scarce resource, but also by left commentators such as Jodi Dean and Franco Beradi for whom the domination of the Internet by the interests of capital leads to a breakdown in communication as a result of “a massive, circulating flow of increasingly valueless contributions insofar as each can command less and less attention”. (Dean)

Both Dean and Beradi point to psychological consequences of the constant demands on attention which is neurologically limited so that “attention cannot be accelerated beyond a limit... The exhaustibility of psychic resources is the limit of the cybersphere.” (Beradi) Attempting to deal with these demands on attention can lead to oscillation between acting impulsively and withdrawal, doing nothing. (Dean)

For Dean, the consequence is “a foreclosure of politics”:

“The cost of the exponentially expanding circuit of information and communication is particularly high for progressive and left political movements. Competition for attention...in a rich, tumultuous media environment too often and easily means adapting to this environment and making its dynamic our own, which can result in a shift in focus from doing to appearing...  Infinite demands on our attention... expropriate political energies of focus, organization, duration, and will vital to communism as a movement and a struggle.”

The problem with this argument is that it is too all-embracing and leads to contradictory conclusions.

It is not merely that everything from football and fashion to consumerism and rock music has at one time or another said to distract leftists from the class struggle. It is Dean’s view that under her model communication is impossible because “Uncoupled from contexts of action and application — as on the Web or in print and broadcast media — the message is simply part of a circulating data stream. Its particular content is irrelevant.” This is belied however by her acknowledgment of the role of social media in the “Arab Spring” not to mention numerous other occasions where the internet has served as the means to enable international solidarity or for serious political debate.

Politically valuable communication is possible through the internet. There is no foreclosure of politics — rather some benign and some malign impacts on the left that need to be identified. That Dean appears to acknowledge this goes against her own theory.

In contrast to Dean and Beradi’s picture of the total domination of the internet by capital there is space for radical content that has an impact on the world offline, for alternative institutions such as Indymedia, for forming links of solidarity and for the producers of free and open source software. A more useful starting point is seeing the internet as a contested space with its institutions, major players and dominant lines of development under the control of capitalist interests but still leaving considerable space that can be exploited by the left.

This means that a more nuanced and concrete analysis that examines specific technologies and their use is necessary if we are to identify how Facebook and left culture interact.

In discussing political campaigning through Facebook, we need to consider “the double articulation of code [software] and politics that reshape informational processes, communicational constraints and possibilities and political practices” (Langlois et al). Platforms such as Facebook are neither a neutral conduit without influence on the behaviour of its users nor an overawing influence that determines the outcomes of the different goals and politics users bring to it. The platforms constrain and enable different modes of operation and interaction — so there is a “like” button but not a “dislike” button in Facebook — and the “articulation of code and politics” can have either mutually reinforcing or contradictory effects.

It is argued here that in the case of left culture, Facebook amplifies but does not create the problems Martin Thomas refers to. As a result, urging the left to abandon or restrict their use of Facebook is not likely to be effective in solving the problems of the culture of the left.

Before looking at the precise ways Facebook and left culture interact, it is useful first to debunk two myths about the impact of social media.

Firstly, short of intervention by the state or law or damage to their own reputation as a result of user content, Facebook and Twitter do not generally seek pro-actively to censor what users post as it is both impractical given the volume of material and would ultimately lead to users going elsewhere thus harming their commercial interests. The recent outcry over Twitter’s inaction over misogynistic posting is one example of their reluctance to intervene.

Secondly, as against what Martin Thomas wrote earlier following Malcolm Gladwell, there is nothing inherent in these modes of communication that only permits superficial discussion or prevents the formation of “strong ties” adequate to serious solidarity and organised political action. (Whether “strong ties” are necessary for that is also dubious but that’s a different discussion.) Any form of two-way interactive communication can potentially form “strong ties” — think of love letters!

There are some advantages to face-to-face discussions — more visual clues, easier clarification of confusion, more flexibility — but their absence is not an absolute obstacle to serious discussion. The benefits of social media do not just come from their one-way broadcasting capabilities in doing things such as advertising meetings.

The disadvantages of Facebook lie then not in an absolute block to communication but in the way the platform structures it. Firstly, it amplifies the pressure of information on attention. In Facebook and Twitter the “feed” or “timeline” produces a constant flow of consecutive postings. The average Facebook user has 200 “friends”. If each posts or shares three times a day, that is 600 postings to be considered — one every two and a half minutes — discounting advertising, spam and other distractions.

Much of this will be trivial or only worthy of “partial attention” but which part? In reality, one either arbitrarily just ignores much of the input, potentially missing important information; uses some filtering mechanism provided by Facebook or spends all one’s time on Facebook. The nature and speed of the flow — let alone other time pressures — do not encourage deep thinking about a post before responding. There is pressure to add one’s contribution before the flow moves on to other things. This creates a fast and furious form of debate which does not encourage clarification of issues.

There is a parallel here with a particular aspect of left culture to be found both in the “apparatus Marxism” of groups like the SWP and often among dedicated unaligned left activists.

Namely that the imminence of “the next big thing” or the demands of activism leave little time or space in our attention for considering or debating the politics of what we are doing. To do so would be to participate in “a talking shop” and necessarily detract from our ability to deal with the urgent demands of the immediate. Analysing the success or, more likely, the failure of the last “big thing” is not necessary.

They just move. In practice, this means deferring to the accepted lowest-common-denominator “wisdom” of the left or leaving it up to the select of the leadership to do the thinking for one and hand down the line. Serious debate becomes an unnecessary burden on one’s time and all that is needed is for these verities to be reiterated and opponents anathematised.

A second failing of Facebook that has echoes on the left is what has been called “me-centricity” where any activity “takes place through a heavily individualised and personalised perspective.” (Langlois et al) The individual’s network is the centre point both for the information the user receives, recommendations generated by Facebook and the social links he or she makes. One consequence is the application of an unconscious filter that not merely limits the range of information received but also plays a role in defining both an individual and group identity. One tends to “knock around” on social media with people who broadly think the same way.

Social media can thus serve as an echo chamber in which one overestimates the real influence of one’s ideas and sees an already convinced circle as one’s sphere of operation rather than a broader public so that “it can be sometimes easy to forget the disparity of opinion between your Twitter feed and the majority of the electorate” (Brennan).

Another crossover with left culture occurs therefore where an inward-looking and self-sustaining orientation born out of the isolation of the left leads to leftists’ activity not going beyond the left itself. Ideas only have to connect with this restricted audience. Thus online activities can substitute for “giving sufficient consideration [to] how to effectively communicate radical ideas on a genuinely popular level... Don’t worry if right-wing hegemony poisons public opinion and creates horrible social divisions: you can find a quick release for your rage on an obscure ‘lefty’ blog that a few of your mates might read.” (Brennan)

Social media also reinforce a kind of politics in which presenting and defending a personal identity becomes more central than in written debate, which may explain the intensely personal nature of many online political arguments. This is bolstered by the resurgence of identity politics and an individualism in sections of the radical milieu.

Given these issues with both Facebook and the culture of the left, is there a way out? Harking back to a time when the left supposedly did things better does not get us far. Nor does blaming the problems on recent defeats in the labour movement. While the isolation of the left has played a part in the decline of open debate, expecting things to improve automatically as a result of an upturn in class struggle dragging internet activists from Facebook into the streets is utopian. Social media are too embedded in the way people live now. Even in a time of mass revolt, even on the street, the new communication technologies will continue to play an important role for the left, as the upheavals of 2011 showed.

Martin Thomas’s hope that activists can be talked away from their computers to more serious things or Dean’s correct but abstract proposal that political organisation is decisive both ignore the social pressures, potential access to the massive number of Facebook users and the genuine benefits of communication keeping people on Facebook even though, as Martin remarks, they may not enjoy using it much.

If the issues identified arise from the interaction between the way many on the left “do politics”, the pressure on attention and the way social media technology forms online behaviour, it is unlikely that there will be an easy or immediate solution. Perhaps, in the short term, we can only really try to change the culture of the left.

Rather than calling on activists to leave Facebook for the benefits of face-to-face communication and serious study — a call that is guaranteed to fail — we are left with pointing out the bad practices of the left, online and offline, in interacting with other socialists and with the broader working class and with proposing alternative ways of operating.

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