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.