Wednesday, October 10, 2007

One-Click Politics

(Warning: Ooh, wow, this one turned into a big long post...)

David Wilcox has an interesting report on Amnesty using Facebook to recruit people. I should note that I'm not a huge fan of Facebook - I have an account to see how it works, but no contacts in my list. So far, nothing on there particularly makes me want to add any, either. That said, the number of people using it clearly earmarks it for attention on a societal scale.

Two Facebook campaigns that David picks up on - Burma and bank charges - highlight the trend in "Web 2.0 politics" that is worth investigating in more detail. Whether it's worth worrying about it, of course, depends on your point of view on how democracy should work, and what kind of participation we want.

Here's the bit from each of the above campaigns, respectively, that interests me:
The Support the Monks in Burma Facebook group has reached 300,000 members, making it one of the largest groups of Facebook, and one of the fastest growing. One thousand people are joining every hour. “We are showing that the eyes of the world are still on Burma, that ordinary people are showing their solidarity and support,” said Johnny Chatterton, the UK co-ordinator...

Bank charges:
A campaign group on Facebook reached over 5,000 members and helped lead to HSBC freezing their plans.

Now, reaching out to so many people is all very impressive. But c'mon now, is this really the modern, networked democracy we've all been looking for - one based, on the whole, on how large a number we can amass?

I think there's a good side to numbers, of course - voting and polling are examples of where they can be used to settle a decision (in the instance of an election, say) or to gauge opinion (before an election). But these are specific uses, and have specific impacts - namely, they're purely about one-way information, from the individual to the central point of data collection. There's no feedback to the individuals, and there's no interaction between individuals. It's a view of people as static individuals, not as a dynamic group.

This is also the problem I have with Facebook in general, and with other schemes such as petitions - the most visible aspect to them all is a quantity: How many people have signed up? How many friends do you have? How many widgets have you added? How many fish have you been sent today? How many campaigns are you a part of? "Participation" takes on a very bounded definition, like an economic view of consumerism. It is transformed, away from the Greek idea of democracy - rhetoric, persuasion, and exercises in evidential argument - and towards an extremely shallow, almost simulated form of populism.

Two threads lead to this, each with different effects. Firstly, the networked aspect of this is hugely influential. The comparison to polls and voting above is unfair, because Web 2.0 politics doesn't cater to individuals in the same way a survey does - it caters to connections, the links between people. Thus, when we say that X number of people have signed up to a campaign, what we may actually mean is that a social network containing that many people have signed up. In terms of the demographics and the "hierarchies" that are then part of that sign-up group, this is a fundamentally different beast. You most likely have a more homogenous group, which raises issues of representation and of organisation - are people only more likely to turn "allegiance" into "action" if their peers do so? Should a more decentralised, local-social group approach be encouraged to take advantage of this?

Secondly, the numbers-led approach encourages, I think, a lot more simplified interaction. Complex interaction paths, requiring greater thought and time, dent these numbers. In the automated, economic, on-line world, these numbers are sales, hence the hullaballoo over Amazon's one-click purchase method. In political terms, a numbers-led democracy seeks to unite the most basic of political argument - emotion - with the same technology. This can be seen in Facebook campaigns and petitions alike, where the reasons for joining in are overtly moral rather than realistic or practical (who's not going to "support" the oppressed if it doesn't actually mean doing something) and the barrier to pledging this support is as low as possible.

The only reason to worry about this trend is if it turns out to be an illusion of power. The bank fees campaign apparently changed the bank's mind. Other "campaigns", such as that to bring back old chocolate bars, support a "realistic" view of power in a network age. But in both of these, the "campaign" is little more than customer canvassing. Opinion and popular hype don't necessarily lead to "reality" - a problem that Samuel L Jackson encountered.

So popular opinion is all well and good, in some circumstances. But at the end of the day, are we setting up our politics to be an easy-riding, least-responsibility, one-click "discussion" shadow?


Neil said...

Great post. I'm an occasional facebook user and have seen "friends" signing up to many such groups ("Kick Ian Huntley off Facebook" was the most recent). You're right in saying that joining a group involves nothing more than a mouse click, and no sense of real responsibility. On the other hand, by joining such a group you are announcing to the rest of your network that you support a cause, no matter how trivial. It doesn't come anywhere close to expressing real opinion or taking real action, but I suppose making your feelings public about an issue does amount to something.

Now if only I could stop them inviting me to be pirates, vampires, zombies, etc. etc. ......

davidwilcox said...

Graham - great points on individual-group-network politics. On practicalities, people at the Amnesty event did say that Facebook isn't enough on its own. It's a great place to convene, but for impact you need to organise more traditional offline events as well.
What Facebook does do is help build a sense of relationship through the activity of friends that you track in your newsfeed. You then feel more confident in asking people you don't know too well to join a group ... and so get viral growth. I think that the role of these semi-trusted places, linked to other activity, will be increasingly important. You don't really spot this unless you get into FB and build a network of friends. But then you may not want a stream of invites to groups....:-)

Scribe said...

Thanks for the comments, neil and david.

Neil, I think (unfortunately) you're right - publicising your support does have an effect, and I'm more inclined to think we're deeply embedded in a "by the numbers" approach to mainstream politics now.

This ties in with David's very interesting comment - which I kind of read as meaning that there's more emphasis on capturing these "weak" links. I think there's a big overlap between "viral" campaigns and "populist" politics (and possibly, on a larger scale, also economies of scale/mass production, but that's a digression...)

Random notes before the weekend then, maybe to be followed up properly later:

1. Network effects/externalities - where more people joining makes it more likely that others will join - often lead to an "all or nothing" outcome. You're either big, or dead. Is politics doomed to become (or, for the cynical, "continue to be") an "Issue of the Week!" affair, with policies being treated to their Star-Wars-Kid-like 15 minutes of fame? Is it all about the PR and the hype?

Does this cheapen them, offer us new ways to engage, or just lull us into a fake, disposable sense of "involvement" (when "real" policies develop over months/years)?

2. If "campaigns" are then effectively vying for emotional attention (e.g. Huntley, Burma, GM animals), what issues are left behind?

3. As well as the effects on organising and "mobilising" action as networks, rather than individuals, join campaigns, what too are the effects on the discussion that takes place? Do we need more individualism within a campaign if a more diverse set of arguments/perspectives is to emerge?

4. How many times has Gordon Brown been bitten by zombies? Can we trust him without carrying a shotgun down one arm of our jacket?

Wow, so many questions. This is going to take years to delve into...