Distraction, Political Activism Online, and the Neglected Physical Sphere

Frank Pasquale left a very interesting comment on my post yesterday, highlighting the political implications of the attention deficit disorder that the ‘Net facilitates and enhances. (Please read the full comment, and if you have the time, chase down the wonderful links that Pasquale provides. Ironic advice, perhaps, given the subject under discussion.)

I want to respond to the opening statement of  Pasquale’s comment:

Rather than empowering new forms of solidarity and political activism, the web may just distract us from them.

In particular, I want to do so by focusing on a kind of activism that suggests itself as a natural strategy to all too many today, that the way to be politically active, an ‘agent of change,’ is to be a ‘thought leader’: to blog, tweet, Facebook-discuss, Twitter-converse, to ‘influence the conversation’ by jumping into the online fracas, dishing out our own, assuredly-unique contribution to the mix. After all, we’re changing minds, one at time, by sending on all these links, writing all these posts, pushing and prodding information hither-n-thither, directing it in the appropriate ways to the appropriate folks. Aren’t we?

So that’s what we do, staying online as we do so, perpetuating and sustaining a set of persistent fantasies associated with the Internet. One of these is the illusion that one’s Internet audience is all there is, all that one needs to worry about. So, when we step out into physical space, away from our keyboards, our activist energies depleted, our work for the day is done. The keyboard is where I do my political work. We’re all cyber-journalists, cyber-polemicists, cyber-pamphleteers, cyber-radical presses now.

My worry about this is the converse of the fear expressed in Frank’s comment: that not just may the web distract us from ’empowering new forms of solidarity and political activism,’ it might tempt us into discharging our political batteries online. It might lead us to disdain the boring, tedious, often unrewarding forms of collective action that are still required in physical space to make political change happen: Do I really need to go for that rally when I’ve already done my bit by forwarding fifty links from the bloggers with the biggest Klout? Why bother attending activist meetings when I’m leading the conversation online?

The excessive attention paid to–and the hosannas showered on–social media tools during the Arab Spring, and indeed, protests elsewhere in the world, seem to have convinced all too many–who I suspect were already primed for such news–that physical space interactions can now be disdained in favor of social-media-capital-accumulation. All to be spent on political purchases, of course.

But this well-intended strategy goes all too wrong, all too quickly. For online is where we stay, distracted, and satisfied by retweets, forwards, link-backs, and Facebook-shares. Sure, we aren’t turned on by the ka-ching of cash registers–we are too elevated for that–but we love watching other numbers pile up. Paying too much attention to those is a diversion too, away from the grubbiness, messiness, and persistent intractability of political work in the physical sphere.

4 thoughts on “Distraction, Political Activism Online, and the Neglected Physical Sphere

  1. Online activism is largely people preaching to the choir. I don’t have any statistics, but I think that I am in the extreme minority in that I seek out people that have different views, and look for healthy discourse. If you look at activists on twitter, and who they are following, etc., it’s incredibly polarized.

    Unless you are going door to door, that’s kind of what you get these days. An echo chamber that causes people to become more and more fringe, on every end of the political spectrum. Things become acceptable that would not be reasonable in a mixed, moderate, or diverse crowd.

    I personally think that the larger issue is getting dialogue going in this country, getting people with different views to try to see the other way, to try to persuade people, and to be willing to listen, and social media does nothing do help this, in my opinion. Twitter is an accelerant.

    The level of discourse in the country, twitter or not, is disheartening. Debates are nonsense, candidates say what they must to get reelected, very little of it is sincere to me, and the rare candidate that is sincere almost never wins a primary.

    This goes back to my theory that if you want to change minds and educate people, one needs to rise above the fray and act like a leader when they do it.

    The only good thing about technology, from an activist point of view, is that the traditional media cannot control the message, and that is a good thing.

    1. JR:

      Thanks for the comment.

      I agree – it’s largely an echo chamber. Of course, most people don’t seek out opposing viewpoints because, as you point out, discourse is pretty polarized so discussion largely seems futile. It’s a a bit of a bind. There’ve been some interesting studies done by social scientists, which show that groups put into discussion tend to harden their positions at the end of it, rather than relaxing them as might be expected.

      As for social media, I think 140-character soundbite discussions are not going to get anywhere so Twitter is for me, a place to post links but not to discuss anything with anyone.

      The issue of debates/primaries/elections that you raise is a big one – all I can say is that our primaries our making things worse. They’d be a good place to start reforming the electoral process.

      Lastly, I am in agreement about technology as well – there is more autonomous participation here, less big-corp control, more new voices.

  2. LOL well I was thinking not so much less big-corp control, but more less liberal media “journollist” type spin. But hey, you say tom A to, I say tom ah to. You know, like, the whole collusion thing amongst prominent writers to tar anyone against Obamacare as a racist. That’s high journalism right there…..

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