It was perhaps inevitable that I would find myself obsessing over the role of social media in the current strikes. In my academic life, I’m a sociologist studying how social media is used within universities and how this is changing the academy. In my non-academic life, I’m a digital engagement specialist at a charity and a social media consultant. Since the start of the strike, I’ve been helping out with the social media for the Cambridge UCU branch while running the #FromThePicketLines campaign for The Sociological Review. This has left me fascinated by how the strike is being represented, co-ordinated and responded to through Twitter.
The most enjoyable aspect of this has been an outpouring of multimedia creativity which has quickly been circulated through these channels. In part, it is easier to produce such material as barriers to production have lowered with each successive generation of smart phones and a rapidly consolidating culture of amateur multimedia production. But there has also been a mimesis effect, as initial examples have spurred other branches and campaigns to produce their own multimedia project. This also reflects the visual turn in social media, initially driven by Pinterest, Instagram and Snapchat before older platforms expanded their visual capacities to avoid losing users to these newer competitors. For instance, 1,582 tweets were made with the hashtag #GIFusourpensions after the first week of the strike, using the animated GIFs now built into the Twitter platform to illustrate the evolving strike using extracts from popular culture. These 720 users produced 3,265,401 impressions between them (occasions on which a post was seen by a user). There have also been creative uses of tools which streamline the process of generating social media content, such as meme generators and caption makers, with my favourite example being a vice-chancellor themed Hitler bunker parody. As the strike has progressed, we have seen increasing numbers of videos being produced, ranging from serious attempts to explain the concept of the picket line through to comedic offerings which gently satirise the privilege of those who appear in them. While any one example is probably insignificant, the aggregate effect represents an expansion of symbolic participation in the strike, itself significant for knowledge workers without many material correlates to their labour or its withdrawal.
What fascinates me about this is how it has arisen spontaneously, without prior coordination or any meaningful sense of what one does with social media under these circumstances. It would obviously be mistaken to imagine that branches were previously insulated from one another, acting in institutional silos while only the national organisation linked all the nodes together. To a large extent, we have seen activists around the country taking up these social media platforms as tools, perhaps informed by their past professional and/or activist experience of them, finding uses which are enjoyable but also finding receptive audiences. The fact these audiences are often made up of other activists, as well as a broader academic community which has in effect taken to activism en masse, incites them towards similar action. For all that popular debate has been concerned with ‘filter bubbles’, we see the other side of online community here, as people with converging motivations inspire each other in pursuit of common aims.
These are just speculative thoughts, informed by helping with the social media of my local UCU branch and running a #fromthepicketline social media campaign as part of my (non-academic) day job during the strike. But there are a great many empirical questions which have been raised by the role of social media in this strike, inviting answers which would have a double significance as matters of union strategy but also as empirical social science.