Mass political Jiu Jitsu

Paolo Gerbaudo, Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism

Pluto Press, 208pp, £16.99, ISBN 9780745332482

reviewed by Jemma Crew

In October 2010, the journalist Malcolm Gladwell claimed controversially that ‘The revolution will not be tweeted’, in response to an overwhelming wealth of commentary celebrating the ‘Facebook revolution’ and the perceived transformation of political activism through online social media. The role that sites such as Twitter have played has been so important to political activism that in 2009 the US State Department asked the site to postpone a planned maintenance closure, given how crucial it was to the development of the anti-state protests in Tehran at the time. In Egypt, during the 2011 unrest, the Mubarak regime pulled the switch on the internet in a desperate attempt to cut off the demonstrators and dissuade their actions. Twitter has been praised by many activists as reinventing social activism. Others, however – like Gladwell - have coined derogatory terms such as ‘slactivism’ and ‘clicktivism’ to criticise the lack of commitment that online activism can produce.

Dismissing or affirming the revolutionary potential of social media in the above ways leads to inflexible, concretised positions, precluding an in-depth, nuanced understanding of how social media and political activism are related. What Paolo Gerbaudo identifies in these two camps is a tendency to dichotomise social media by either championing it uncritically or rejecting it outright. Rather than attempting to place himself firmly on either side, Gerbaudo challenges some of the myths that have been automatically propagated by both sides.

For example, Gerbaudo takes issue with the doctrine of horizontalism attributed to social media by those wishing to use the form to stand against hierarchal structures of corruption - e.g. governments, corporate businesses etc. If the activist ideal is a leaderless and transparent movement of consensus, he warns, then the opacity of Twitter in rendering online leaders less visible may be working against this vision. While contemporary activists may claim twitter as an equal, horizontal tool of revolutionary engagement there is in fact an inherent asymmetry between those who follow and those who are followed. This imbalance is reflected in the disparity between the numbers of people an individual follows and the number of people following that individual; at a general level this points to the presence of a small number of key leaders surrounded by a larger mass of less influential followers, evoking the traditional pyramid structure of hierarchy that social media is said to dismantle. On Twitter, we may all be leaders, but some of us have more influence than others. Gerbaudo identifies this as a new form of leadership as ‘liquid’ – in homage to Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of liquid modernity. This fluidity of leadership protects against the vanguard tendencies of some leftist organisations, but it also results in a sense of diminished responsibility, where individuals who deny their positions as leaders can excuse their actions when things go wrong. The idea of a ‘liquid’ leadership also suggests it can easily be dissolved – not the most ideal of qualities for a protest movement that, if it is to have significant, long-term effect, must have some aspiration toward longevity. The question is one of sustainability: how long can the streams of information, motivation and resistance last before their source dries out or the flow is diverted? What is needed to ensure that these movements retain a permanent quality instead of dissolving as the initial wave of enthusiasm breaks overhead?

The claim that most of these movements make is that they are spontaneous uprisings signifying irrepressible public outrage. If a protest movement is going to last, clearly it needs more than the instantaneous, here-and-now character of social media, and more of a developed, sustainable plan. This anti-organisational feeling is so strong that many deny that they are organisations at all, or that they have leaders. Gerbaudo sees this claim as a healthy response to an over-structured, rigid society; the danger, however, is that structurelessness becomes a goddess in its own right. Such total claims to spontaneity of action and lack of structured organisation may in fact emerge out of a fetishised perspective that covers up the basic hierarchies inherent and essential to any movement.

There is nothing the state fears more than a spontaneous insurrection, an impulsive and unpredictable act of resistance against the status quo. Movements that claim spontaneity derive additional power from the fact that the group’s common feelings are so strong that they require comparatively little organisation in order to mobilise. However, in a Gramscian vein Gerbaudo argues that ‘pure spontaneity does not exist’ – in the absence of a formal, organisational structure Gerbaudo suggests that it is communication itself which choreographs the crucial action. What he calls the ‘choreography of assembly’ carefully undermines the claim to total spontaneity whilst also presenting organisation in a non-authoritarian way that still respects freedom of individual movement. Social media, he says, sets the scene, loosely choreographs the trajectories of key players, then takes a backseat and allows the action to unravel ‘spontaneously’ onstage. If we are to keep with Gerbaudo’s theatrical metaphor, we must also recognise the significance of the performance itself: it is only at this point, and on this stage, that the eyes of the world are focussed and its attention is caught. All the rehearsals, the scripts and meticulous planning, indispensable as it is to the formation of the show, must remain backstage. Therefore, while Gerbaudo praises social media for the soft leadership, emotional unity and choreography of assembly that it provides, the ultimate strength of protest movements lies in their concrete, embodied, engaged realisation – the physical occupation of physical places by physical bodies.

The importance of emplacement and embodiment is at the core of Gerbaudo’s book. While the sociologist Kevin McDonald claims that the discourse of networks tends to ‘expel the body’, social media also acts to counter the dispersed and atomised condition of modern society, providing an emotional centre around which people can coalesce. The fact that the privatisation of public space led to its abstract realisation in online refuges, which in turn created a strong impetus toward the physical, occupied protests of 2011, is a paradox that renders the alleged bodilessness of the internet ambiguous. For Gerbaudo, it is the emotional charge generated online that lubricates the slippage from one form of gathering to the other, despite their differences. Moreover, Gerbaudo’s analysis of social ties renders this division less than clear cut. Orthodox interpretations see social media as providing ties that are weak – individuals are far from each other, sometimes barely known, with mediated interactions – whereas physical gatherings involve strong ties that are physically, emotionally and socially proximate. However this analysis fails to recognise the strength inherent in weak ties – the possible access to the other’s world in lieu of the relationship, and the honesty of impersonal interactions point to a strength that is often overlooked. In a similar way, strong ties – like those of physical and emotional closeness shared by the occupants of Tahrir Square – tend towards a self-referential and exclusive quality, and can therefore have a weak outward reach. Like in JG Ballard’s Concrete Island (Jonathan Cape, 1974), sometimes it is right in the centre of everything that one can be most isolated.

Critics have pointed out the ethical incongruence in activists using corporate giants like Facebook to further their causes when these very causes are opposed to these corporations on a structural, if not moral level. In response, Adbusters’ Kalle Lasn has invoked the helpful metaphor of Jiu Jitsu: in Jiu Jitsu the combatant uses his opponent’s force against him, turning his strength back on himself - the writer Naomi Klein has cited Lasn as a practitioner of ‘mass political Jiu Jitsu’. By using Facebook to organise politically, activists employ the site’s dominance to their advantage, preferring its social reach to the characteristically isolated activist-only websites. In a telling irony, most people only became aware about the recent Facebook boycott (on Saturday 1 December 2012) through conversations on the site itself. For all the hype, the online world is not a discrete sphere, sealed off from our lived experiences: social media is always, already, tied up in the questions we find ourselves asking.