I’m late in reposting this from the excellent virtual panel at HASTAC, but here’s my video “rant” about the disconnect between social media politics and parliamentary politics. In the video, I’m all riled up because it’s the morning after the passage of the Digital Economy Act, but I think the wider point holds: politics isn’t connected with social media advocacy, but neither is social media advocacy a reliable substitute for democratic politics.
Politicians have failed us: that seems to be the consensus after last week’s Digital Economy Bill fiasco. So now what? The social media sphere is still buzzing, and the Open Rights Group has experienced a surge in membership. Their web forums are beginning to identify opportunities for local campaigns. There is increasing acknowlegement that digital rights issues are fundamental to democracy, and that the interests of rightsholders whose business models depend on exclusion of access should not trump the communication rights of innocent individuals. Yet much remains to be done to capitalize on these opportunities to galvanize digital democracy. The UK is the site of much innovation in democratic social media from mysociety’s TheyWorkForYou which connects Hansard data to voters by location, to more mundane (but essential) projects like CTC’s FillThatHole which allows you to report dangerous potholes. But there’s still a risk that all of this innovation is contributing to an echo chamber.
I will be commenting on the Digital Economy Bill wash-up vote and the risks and benefits of social media democratic action as part of a virtual panel organized by Christian Sandvig for the HASTAC conference held online from April 15-17. Check out the conference and the panel, and please share your comments and thoughts.
I’m also interested, in a more scholarly way, in how all of this advocacy fits together. As anyone who studies social movements knows, digitally-organized coalition and issue based movements risk propagating “electronic panics.” Not only that, but coalition members may have to focus on narrowly shared goals and step carefully around issues where they don’t agree. I’ll be exploring how this works with UK PrivacyOS workshop in Oxford this week, digging down into the relationship between privacy and Net Neutrality advocacy. These both seem like especially niche areas, but I’m hoping that understanding their relationship can help to model other ways of connecting advocates at this especially important time.
The Digital Economy Bill passed last night. As thousands watched on the BBC, most MPs skipped the debate, which was over in two hours. And despite 20,000 letters being sent and nearly 25,000 tweets encouraging MPs to submit this bill to rigorous debate, only 227 of the 647 MPs voted (see a great stats mashup here). The bill was washed into the House of Lords this afternoon.
This situation exposes the rift between politics and politicians. The bill was broadly debated and discussed by internet researchers, lawyers, advocates – even the British Library had a consultation on proposals to make providers of free WiFi networks liable for copyright infringements undertaken on their networks. Deliberative democracy was in full force. But the politicians fell down on the job – with, perhaps, the exception of MP Tom Watson, who has become a minor Internet celebrity for consulting his constituents’ remarks on his Twitter feed during the debate.
This could well be the political crisis that pushes for democratic reform in the UK. At the very least, as several commentators point out, it demonstrates that social media is transforming politics, and also that digital rights issue impact more people than just the tech community: poorly thought out legislation on disconnection could impact public institutions like the British Library, as well as small businesses. As the election campaign starts again, let’s hope that politicians can get back in touch with politics.
Lewis Gordon at Truthout argues that the market model of academia has killed the public intellectual. He argues that market pressures, including heavy competition for limited jobs, and the focus on professional academics as masters of technical and textual knowledge has forced public intellectuals into creating the equivalent of academic literature reviews every time they want to talk about major issues of public interest. He contrasts this market-driven logic with some of the public intellectuals of the past, who rejected the spoils of faculty positions and prestigious prizes. He writes:
For many, it’s impossible to imagine intellectuals like Fanon and Sartre as anything short of holier than thou, even though neither of them argued that academics should not have academic pursuits and seek academic rewards. They simply asked for the rest of us not to pretend that the world is somehow better off by our being rewarded for such pursuits and especially so in the most prestigious representations of establishment.
A key pillar of this argument is a critique of fame – or, at the very least, the commoditization of academic fame. In my office today there was much discussion of how we young academics are expected to maintain a personal brand. Every tweet, every blog post could be read by future employers or future students, and all must be kept consistent, in content and style, with what we are expected to produce as knowledge workers. And as social media is time-sensitive, the brand must be maintained at all times. The reward for maintaining this image is an academic job, as Gordon points out, but it is also fame within the social media sphere.
This is a double-edged sword for anyone who (like me) has aspirations as a public intellectual. On the one hand, as the Chronicle of Higher Education has pointed out, many factors combine to limit the number of academic posts. With more competition, productivity becomes important. So turn off Twitter and stop reading blogs. Write that article, and ignore the Party on the Internet. But leaving aside the perilous labour conditions and the market-driven environment that might await once one gets the academic post, there’s also the immediate question of how much to engage with the flow of debate rushing through the social media sphere. To catch the stream, one must maintain a different sort of personal brand – one that depends on constant and high quality participation.
I disagree with Gordon’s claim that it’s essentially impossible to be a true public intellectual under current market conditions. I think it is possible, but it comes with a heavy pressure of time and participation that doesn’t seem to be well understood or supported by the academy. How do others negotiate the different demands of academic and advocacy social media worlds? What goes on the Twitter stream, and what stays off?