Reviewing articles from 2009 to 2011, it's clear how swiftly and drastically the history of social media and its capabilities have changed. It was, those few short years ago, a grandiose time. A time when the news media was abuzz with the idea that Twitter was responsible for revolutions; that through social media, lasting social change would come.
There is no question that Twitter shed a novel light on Iran's 2009 Green Revolution, on the Tunisian revolution of 2010 to 2011, and Egypt's 2011 revolution. The extent and shape of this novelty is very much up for debate. Certainly, social media was both a product of and a factor in creating the conditions of possibility for these uprisings. Tweets shaped their narratives because tweets were their narrative. Tweets brought bodies into insurrectionary spaces, bodies used Twitter to expand those spaces further. History tells of discrete events, but lived realities are less tidy. Twitter revolutions begin and end long, while social unrest and its material conditions sprawl out across unbounded time.
Now, just a few years later, with social media platforms firmly embedded in our modes of recounting and reporting events, the revolutionary potential of these cyber-speech acts is up for question. #BringBackOurGirls didn't bring back kidnapped girls, but certainly served to flatten the narrative and over simplify Nigeria's complicated and violent situation, as my colleague Olivia Becker well pointed out. #YesAllWomen fostered important discussions and connections over the ubiquity of patriarchy, but, according to Twitter analytics, at its height the feminist hashtag fell neatly between Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus in popularity rankings of topics. (Take that, patriarchy!) And, lest, we forget (and suffice it to mention): #Kony2012.
Certainly the online phenomena I list above have been responses to different political and social circumstances. While Twitter may have played a particularly important role in Arab Spring uprisings as a strike out from state-controlled media platforms, #YesAllWomen can also be seen as a reaction to a given regime — that of male privilege. These are different online activisms, but they are united in relying on the same format and platform, and being structurally reactionary.
It is wrongheaded ask whether social media activism, or the use of social media for activism, is successful or failed? Such a question assumes an archaic sort of digital dualism that treats online communications, online lives, as surface additions to In Real Life experiences and connections. But the "real" and the "cyber," as social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson has stressed, are not distinct existences; rather, they "enmesh into an augmented reality." Like phones, or, indeed, languages, social media platforms function as an apparatus. An apparatus, according to Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben is “literally anything that has in some way the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings.” And of an apparatus we cannot ask, "is it good?" Rather, we can ask, "what sort of worlds and selves does it produce and rely upon?"
Twitter produces and demands complicated sets of relations, connections and truths and illusions. It has at times been fueled by, and in turn produced, revolutionary subjects. It has also been fueled by, and produced, apathetic subjects, reformist subjects, brutal and victimized subjects. These are subjects of and under capitalism. While I agree with Jurgenson that we should not distinguish online lives as distinct from reality, there remains something wholly problematic in the sort of political engagement that finds its most radical expression in a retweet. Rightly, "slacktivism" was coined as a barb against the sort of detached, low-level political commitment that social media regularly produces and validates.One needn't be a digital dualist to be critical of certain digital aspects of our "augmented realities." Joining a hashtag protest is a phenomenon quite different from running in a street protest.
Of course, structures and apparatuses have always shaped and modeled how human connections are made. Twitter as a specific apparatus — and a Silicon Valley giant — puts particularly strong constraints on the shape of narratives and how connections are made. It is certainly part of a system of control (controlled language, controlled identities, tracked and surveilled lives). A lot can be done with 140 characters, but, still, only so much. As I commented on the phenomenon of Bangkok residents taking selfies with soldiers during the latest coup, techno-capital enables many millions of people to capture their own narratives, and even include themselves in these histories. But then there is something inherently stultifying, perhaps a flattening of narrative, in the strict constraints imposed by social media formats.
Judgement of clicktivism should be, I'd argue, contained in the framework of diversity of tactics. It makes no more sense to ask whether it "works" than it makes sense to ask if voting "works." These are unfinished sentences. We must really ask what these political actions work towards: what are they in service of? It is a common charge levied at anarchists that smashing a Starbucks window during a busy protest doesn't "work." But if the intention is to perhaps distract riot cops away from arresting an ally, or simply to disrupt the shiny aesthetics of consumer capital, well then a smashed window "works" rather well. Similarly, a knockout blow to patriarchy will not come in the form of a hashtag. But if the work of #YesAllWomen was to highlight and enable shared experiences, then it certainly served that purpose.
One of the more tactical applications of social media I've seen began circulating the Twittersphere on Friday. Kids in a handful of US classrooms made deals with their teachers to cancel finals if a photo can get 1,000 (or 5,000) retweets. If teachers aren't liars, these kids may have masterfully outsmarted their elders (exploiting a generational failure to understand online resonance) and used Twitter connectivity to brilliant effect. It can only work once, but that's one less exam for dozens of kids, and that's their victory.
At the time of writing, within the same week that #YesAllWomen emerged in response to the vile UCSB killings, the hashtag is already no longer trending in the United States. The world produced and upheld through Twitter is a world of lightning fast, distinct events. Its form is a feed, and it is ravenous. Certainly, just because something is short lived does not make it inconsequential. The Paris Commune lasted only two months. There are resonances beyond lifespans. It is not a structural problem with Twitter that its content lives fast and dies young; it was designed to be so. But therein lies the necessity of a diversity of tactics, stretching across our augmented reality. In upturning regimes of oppression and systems of control, we will need every weapon in our arsenal. The battlefields are many and complex — a hashtag will not suffice. Similarly, it is not enough that we find each other in the streets, but it is in the streets that we must find each other.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard
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