I found this review of Trump and the Media by Nicholas Carr in the LA Review of Books immensely thought-provoking. His focus is on the book’s historical contribution, contextualising the enthusiasm with which social media was greeted in terms of long term concerns about the centralisation of mass media. We can’t understand the ideal of a radically decentralised media without understanding the anxieties provoked by its initial centralisation:

Trump’s twitter stream may be without precedent, but the controversy surrounding social media’s political impact has a history stretching back nearly a century. During the 1930s, the spread of mass media was accompanied by the rise of fascism. To many observers at the time, the former helped explain the latter. By consolidating control over news and other information, radio networks, movie studios, and publishing houses enabled a single voice to address and even command the multitudes. The very structure of mass media seemed to reflect and reinforce the political structure of the authoritarian state.

It is against this backdrop that social scientists began to “imagine a decentralized, multimedia communication network that would encourage the development of a ‘democratic personality,’ providing a bulwark against fascist movements and their charismatic leaders”. Fred Turner traces these initial speculations from their originators, through the 1960s counterculture and the incipient computer industry, before it became an article of faith within present day Silicon Valley:

In the early years of this century, as the internet subsumed traditional media, the ideal became a pillar of Silicon Valley ideology. The founders of companies like Google and Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, promoted their networks as tools for overthrowing mass-media “gatekeepers” and giving individuals control over the exchange of information. They promised, as Turner writes, that social media would “allow us to present our authentic selves to one another” and connect those diverse selves into a more harmonious, pluralistic, and democratic society.

Carr frames Trump and the Media as “orbiting” around “the wreckage of techno-progressive orthodoxy”. These are the terms in which I’ve recently tried to analyse ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’, as solutionist framings by technological, media and political elites which circumscribe a much broader set of transformations and shape likely responses to them. It’s often struck me that these represent a peculiarly populist form of reasoning in their own right: isolating an incoming element which is seen to undermine a previously stable system, whether this is ‘populism’ or ‘social media’ itself. In the process, the claims of populists and social media firms are taken at face value, vastly inflating the power they have:

One contentious question is whether social media in general and Twitter in particular actually changed the outcome of the vote. Keith N. Hampton, of Michigan State University, finds “no evidence” that any of the widely acknowledged malignancies of social media, from fake news to filter bubbles, “worked in favor of a particular presidential candidate.” Drawing on exit polls, he shows that most demographic groups voted pretty much the same in 2016 as they had in the Obama-Romney race of 2012. The one group that exhibited a large and possibly decisive shift from the Democratic to the Republican candidate were white voters without college degrees. Yet these voters, surveys reveal, are also the least likely to spend a lot of time online or to be active on social media. It’s unfair to blame Twitter or Facebook for Trump’s victory, Hampton suggests, if the swing voters weren’t on Twitter or Facebook.

This is not to say that social media doesn’t exercise influence, only to dispute the assumption that it works through one-to-many communication. The media elites bemoaning the rise of fake news and filter bubbles in the dawning post-truth age are themselves complicit in the dynamic they see as being ‘out there’:

What Hampton overlooks are the indirect effects of social media, particularly its influence on press coverage and public attention. As the University of Oxford’s Josh Cowls and Ralph Schroeder write, Trump’s Twitter account may have been monitored by only a small portion of the public, but it was followed, religiously, by journalists, pundits, and policymakers. The novelty and frequent abrasiveness of the tweets — they broke all the rules of decorum for presidential campaigns — mesmerized the chattering class throughout the primaries and the general election campaign, fueling a frenzy of retweets, replies, and hashtags. Social media’s biggest echo chamber turned out to be the traditional media elite.

What this short review suggested to me is the necessity of revisiting basic concepts (such as centralisation, gatekeepers, publics and influence) in response to the wreckage of techno-progressive orthodoxy. We need a bleak social theory for bleak times and if it doesn’t begin by examining the assumptions inherited in core concepts, as well as their implications for making sense of the present conjuncture, it is unlikely to get very far.

Even if I wasn’t a supporter, I’d have been fascinated by Labour’s use of social media in the last election and how this built upon prior successes in successive leadership elections. The new book by Steve Howell, deputy director of strategy and communications during the election, contains many fascinating snippets about this that I hadn’t encountered anywhere else. Perhaps the most interesting is the Labour leadership’s embrace of social media outriders which I’d seen speculated about but never confirmed. From loc 818 of Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics:

But, if I was ever frustrated by some of those early discussions, one thing that would always lift my spirits was the irrepressible activity of what were known in LOTO as ‘Jeremy’s outriders.’ There were dozens of them on Twitter and Facebook who, day in and day out, were pumping out great material exposing the Tories and putting across many of our arguments. I include in this organised groups such as JeremyCorbyn4PM and Momentum, but mostly they were people acting on their own initiative out of sheer personal commitment. And some of them, such as @Rachael_Swindon and @ScouseGirlMedia, have suffered a fair bit of abuse and harassment for their trouble. The two outriders I had most contact with were Eoin Clark and Peter Stefanovic. Eoin will be known to many people for his @ToryFibs Twitter feed and its forensic rebuttal of Tory claims and attacks in detailed memes. Peter specialises in hard-hitting videos on the NHS, on the miners’ compensation, and in support of the WASPI campaign against the raising of the state pensionI  age for women born in the 1950s. When I suggested to Jeremy that we should invite Peter in for a chat, he was very enthusiastic. The meeting was one of the highlights of those early weeks. Peter’s passion for what he was doing was inspiring and infectious. He had given up his day job as a lawyer to spend a year campaigning and was eager to persuade the groups he was working with that a Corbyn-led government would address their issues. “That was an incredibly important meeting,” he told me recently. “We discussed what might be included in the manifesto and that allowed me to go back to WASPI, the miners, and the junior doctors to tell them what Labour would do.”

What does this mean in practice? It’s hard to say but it seemingly reflects the most prominent examples of a much broader spectrum of engagement, extending as far as Howell having regular exchanges via DM with independent activists who provided on the ground perspectives of unfolding events which couldn’t be reached through the party machine. The importance of this could be overstated but I’m interested in how it strengthened their conviction to drop or downplay tactical aspects of political communication which were held as certainties by those within the party organisation. It’s also easy to imagine this activity being seized upon in the event of a poor result as an example of the leadership’s willing embrace of a filter bubble.

In the last year, I’ve become increasingly preoccupied by why we shouldn’t take social media metrics too seriously. In part, this preoccupation is analytical because following this thread has proven to be a useful way to move from my past focus on individual users of social media to a more expansive sociological account of platforms. The lifecycle of metrics from being a project of platform engineers, through to being a feature of platforms onto something which are meaningful and matter to users elucidates structure and agency as it pertains to platforms. As does the subsequent utilisation of these metrics, laden with meaning by users, in order to model these people and modulate the environment within which they act. By saying we shouldn’t take metrics too seriously, I’m drawing attention to the way they are used as a mechanism to mould the behaviour of users and the risk that uncritical embrace of them leaves us being enticed by platforms in a damaging way.

However beyond this concern, we shouldn’t lose sight of how easily they can be fudged and how unreliable they are. This is a concern which Jaron Lanier powerfully puts forward on pg 67 of his new book:

First, why believe the numbers? As discussed in the previous argument, much of the online world is fake. Fake readers, fake commenters, fake referrals. I note that news sites that are trying to woo advertisers directly often seem to show spectacularly greater numbers of readers for articles about products that might be advertised—like choosing your next gaming machine—than for articles about other topics. This doesn’t mean the site is fudging its numbers. Instead, a manager probably hired a consulting firm that used an algorithm to optimize the choice of metrics services to relate the kind of usage statistics the site could use to attract advertisers. In other words, the site’s owners didn’t consciously fudge, but they kinda-sorta know that their stats are part of a giant fudge cake.

It’s not so much that they are meaningless as that their meaning is often unstable. There are occasions in which it might be necessary to engage with them but we have to do this carefully. One of my projects in the next year will be to try and produce guidelines about this interpretation which reflect what we know about the sociology of platforms while nonetheless recognising that metricising our activity on social media can sometimes serve as strategic purpose.

This is Jaron Lanier’s memorable description of social media in his new book Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Social media is a technology for asshole amplification. To be clearly seen in the fact that “since social media took off, assholes are having more of a say in the world” (pg 43). His point is not that social media is a haven for trolls because it’s “not helpful to think of the world as being divided into assholes and non-assholes or if you prefer trolls and victims”. On pg 44 he cautions that each of us has our own inner troll:

It’s like an ugly alien living inside you that you long ago forgot about. Don’t let your inner troll take control! If it happens when you’re in a particular situation, avoid that situation! It doesn’t matter if it’s an online platform, a relationship, or a job. Your character is like your health, more valuable than anything you can buy. Don’t throw it away. But why, why is the inner troll there at all? It’s such a common problem that it must be a deep, primal business, a tragedy of our inheritance, a stupid flaw at the heart of the human condition. But saying that doesn’t get us anywhere. What exactly is the inner troll? Sometimes the inner troll takes charge, sometimes it doesn’t. My working hypothesis has long been that there’s a switch deep in every human personality that can be set in one of two modes. We’re like wolves. We can either be solitary or members of a pack of wolves. I call this switch the Solitary/ Pack switch. When we’re solitary wolves, we’re more free. We’re cautious, but also capable of more joy. We think for ourselves, improvise, create. We scavenge, hunt, hide. We howl once in a while out of pure exuberance. When we’re in a pack, interactions with others become the most important thing in the world. I don’t know how far that goes with wolves, but it’s dramatic in people. When people are locked in a competitive, hierarchical power structure, as in a corporation, they can lose sight of the reality of what they’re doing because the immediate power struggle looms larger than reality itself.

The evolutionary language here can seem off-putting to a sociologist. But it can be recast in terms of internal and external goods. Sometimes we are driven by the rewards internal to what we are doing while at other times we are driven by rewards external to what we are doing. What makes social media platforms so insidious is their tendency to, as Lanier puts it, make “social status and intrigues become more than immediate than the larger reality” (pg 49). I don’t agree with his account of why this is so but I think the underlying direction of his argument is correct. Social media is asshole amplification technology because it lends such force and vivacity to external goods, particularly recognition and reputation, leaving internal goods hard to sustain.

We often do sustain our relationship with these goods, as can be seen in the continued existence of thoughtful and intelligent exchange online. But we do so in spite of rather than because of the asshole amplification architecture of social media. It’s grasping the bivalent nature of this relationship, as internal and external goods co-mingle within platform architectures which are continually modulating in response to our (ambivalent) actions, which is crucial if we want to understand and perhaps even overcome the asshole amplification propensities of social media.

In TroubleMakers, Leslie Berlin summarises the notion of Class 1 and Class 2 disputes propounded by Bob Taylor, founder and manager of Xerox PARC’s famous Computer Science Laboratory. Part of his renowned capacity to build community within the lab involved turning what might have been destructive disputes into constructive ones. On pg 105 Berlin explains how:

Taylor distinguished between what he called “Class 1 and Class 2 disputes.” In the first, the two sides are so estranged that they cannot even hear, much less understand, what the other is saying. In Class 2 disputes, the two sides disagree but understand each other. Taylor’s goal was to move all Class 1 disagreements to Class 2, even if resolution was not possible.

What would this look like on social media? I can conceive of particular instances where thoughtful interventions, with the right timing, might succeed in shifting disagreements from Class 1 to Class 2. Having said this, I struggle to think of any concrete examples but perhaps these are events likely to fly beneath the radar unless you are party to them yourself. Nonetheless, any instance I can imagine seems intensely particularistic, rather than representing a general category. I can imagine Taylor being able to offer general strategies, as well as specific tactics through which one might seek to shift Class 1 disputes into Class 2 disputes. We could also imagine generalisations about the conditions under which such a shift is likely to be possible. But I struggle to imagine any comparable strategy or tactics for disputes which occur through social media, as opposed to situational responses which might contingently work. Furthermore, I find it difficult to imagine how we might build up a body of knowledge about the conditions under which such a shift is likely to be possible because the dynamics are liable to be so specific to the interaction between the parties.

Am I being too bleak? This certainly seems like a gloomy conclusion to draw. But in a context like the lab, it’s possible to make all sorts of assumptions which would obviously be mistaken on social media, concerning factors such as the motivations of parties and their description of the situation. Social media has the propensity to throw people together, with the most minimal relation between them, inciting interaction in the absence of many of the cues which ensure orderly conduct in everyday life. Not only are Class 1 disputes likely on social media, a potential shift to Class 2 disputes becomes less likely with time because continued interaction multiplies the possibility for interpretive failure. The dialogue becomes self-referential, as internal cues come to substitute for the external stabilising influence that would often kick in were the same interaction to unfold in an offline setting.

#DQComm2018 The Deliberative Quality of Communication Conference 2018
Citizens, Media and Politics in Challenging Times: Perspectives on the
Deliberative Quality of Communication

November 8 – 9, 2018
Mannheim Centre for European Social Research (MZES), Mannheim, Germany

Keynote Speaker: Kaisa Herne (University of Tampere)

Roundtable on the Future of Deliberation Research with:
André Bächtiger (University of Stuttgart)
Céline Colombo (University of Zürich)
Christiane Eilders (University of Düsseldorf)
Hartmut Wessler (University of Mannheim)

Call for abstracts

Western democracies nowadays face a number of challenges induced by
political developments. These challenges have been affecting the way in
which citizens, the media and political elites communicate about politics.
Critical observers witness a deteriorating quality of political
conversations between ordinary citizens. It appears no longer possible to
discuss politics normally. A high-choice media environment facilitated by
online and in particular social media enables citizens to refrain from
exposing themselves to counter-attitudinal information and engaging in
cross-cutting political talk. The polarization of opinions within society
is promoted by increasingly fragmented media systems and a reporting style
that favors sensational and scandalous over a balanced and multifaceted
reporting. Rapid media cycles shorten time for balanced and thorough
argumentation and media outlets are steadily confronted with the accusation
of producing fake news. Political actors adapt to the media logic by
employing ever more simplified and emotionally arousing communication.
Instead of deliberating publicly on complex problems and finding
compromises or solutions, political elites rather prefer to communicate
through short soundbites and populist messages to promote their positions
and eventually attract voters at election time. Overall, these dynamics
indicate a deteriorating deliberative quality of political communication
among and between citizens, the media and political elites. While this
phenomenon has caused concern among scholars from both political and
communication science, it still needs further empirical substantiation and
demand a reflection on extant theories.

This conference aims at addressing the deliberative quality of
communication among and between citizens, media and political elites.
Within this research context, we welcome both theoretical, empirical and
methodological contributions focusing on the deliberative quality of
communication. The proposals can address – but are not limited – to the
following questions:

* To which extent does ordinary citizens’ talk about politics come close to
the genuine type of deliberation? Who participates in political talk, who
does not and why? Do citizens talk to those with viewpoints that conflict
with their own? What are the underlying motives and condition that give
rise to homogenous or heterogeneous talk about politics? Which variables
affect the quality of informal civic discussions? Do citizens’ daily
exchanges resemble reasoned and well-argued debates or harsh fights at the
expense of proper justification?

* To which extent does the online sphere of political communication promote
respectively impede deliberation? Are platform interventions (e.g.,
Facebook’s proposed policy of removing hate speech and fake news) a panacea
to improve the quality of online deliberation and to save deliberative
democracy?

* To which extent do different features of the media systems influence
mediated deliberation? How does the increased polarization and
fragmentation of media environments translate into the deliberative quality
of the media? How deliberative is the media system as a whole? How
deliberative are individual media types, formats, or programs?

* How do political, national and cultural climates shape deliberation? To
which extent do different types of the political system affect the
deliberative quality within the public sphere? How does the increased
polarization of the political environments affect formal deliberation? How
do political elites engage with populist actors who decline to engage in
reasoned and constructive dialogue?

* Which opportunities and challenges do big data offer for the analysis of
deliberation? What are the methodological challenges and pitfalls when
measuring deliberation? To which extent, and if so how, may computational
methods help in identifying the criteria for deliberation?

Submissions are due by June 15, 2018 (23:59 CET) and must be submitted via
this Google Form.

https://goo.gl/forms/xazX7B2E9C64drhB3

Abstracts must not be longer than 500 words (excluding title and
references). A committee composed of communication and political science
experts in deliberation will review each abstract. Only one proposal per
first author can be accepted. Notifications of acceptance will be issued in
July 2018. Limited funds are available to cover accommodation and travel
expenses of conference presenters. In order to host a family-friendly
conference, the parent and child room of the University of Mannheim can be
used for self-provided childcare.

Further questions, please visit the website
http://mzes.uni-mannheim.de/DQComm2018/

or contact the organizers directly: dqcomm2018@mzes.uni-mannheim.de

Christiane Grill, Anne Schäfer, Charlotte Löb and Chung-hong Chan
Organizing Committee of The Deliberative Quality of Communication
Conference 2018

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.

March 8th, 2018 9:30am to 5:00pm Wellcome Collection, London

After last year’s successful ‘Introduction to tools for social media research’, the SRA and #NSMNSS are teaming up again to deliver this one-day conference.

As social media research matures as a discipline, and methodological and ethical concerns are being addressed, focus is increasingly shifting on to the role that it can and should play in the social sciences.

The packed event will include keynote presentations from Steven McDermott and Suzy Moat, and examples from eight expert speakers of how social media research can provide insight into research questions in novel ways. It is aimed at social researchers who want to find out more about what this new methodology can offer, and see how the promises of social media research can be actualised.

Our speakers come from a range of backgrounds, including government and academia, presenting examples on topics such as politics and health, with data from Twitter, Facebook, blog sites and other platforms.

Register online here: http://the-sra.org.uk/event-registration/?ee=626

What is the relationship between social media and individualism? It is often claimed that these platforms engender a preoccupation with the self, easily cast in terms of individualism. But it is a preoccupation which is just as often claimed to be profoundly social, in so far as that it involves a concern with how many facets of the self are perceived by others, as mediated through social media platforms. It occurs to me that de Tocqueville’s distinction between individualism and egotism could be useful in helping clarify this issue. Though egotism and individualism are commonly assumed to go together, such that individualism as a cultural force will foster egotism in individuals, de Tocqueville saw the distinction rather differently:

Our [European] fathers were only acquainted with egotism. Egotism is a passionate and exaggerated love of self, which leads a man to connect everything with his own person, and prefer himself to everything in the world. Individualism is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from [others] so that, after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself. Egotism originates in blind instinct: individualism proceeds from erroneous judgment … Egotism blights the germ of all virtue; individualism, at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but, in the long run, it attacks and destroys all others, and is at length absorbed in downright egotism.

In the new year, I’ll be giving a talk at the Arctic University of Norway on using social media as a social theorist. This post is an initial attempt to get my thoughts on paper before the break, in order to make it easier to get the talk written when I get back from holiday. It might seem that using social media as a social theorist would be little different from using it as a sociologist or as an academic. For this reason, I’d be inclined to start with an introduction to social media for academics, before turning to the opportunities and challenges attached to social theory in particular. Here are the immediate ideas that have occurred to me but I’d hugely welcome further suggestions about topics it would be useful to cover:

  1. On an intellectual level, social theory cuts across fields and disciplines. On an institutional level, social theorists are embedded within existing networks and particular departments. The opportunities which social media offers to facilitate connections across disciplinary boundaries, the possibility to “curate the ideal academic department”, becomes even more valuable because of this intellectual/institutional tension. The talk will cover cross-platform strategies for building these connections and integrating them into everyday work routines.
  2. Many social theorists face a pressure to be more than a theorist, demonstrating empirical and/or methodological proficiency in order to ensure their employability. Social media can be a release vale which helps cope with the internal and external tensions generated by this demand. It also offers opportunities for those who “may toil in relative isolation from others who share their immediate interests”.
  3. The fragmentation of social theory creates practical challenges, as the opportunity costs of scholarship mean that mastery of a particular area can make it difficult to keep up to date with wider developments. Social media can provide invaluable in keeping up with new developments, drawing on much wider networks which can be built. It also provides accessible routes into new areas, as other social theorists reflecting on what they are reading can serve as a valuable bridge into a new literature.
  4. The opportunities which social media offers for pre-publication and post-publication exchange reduces reliance on the journal article, with all the limitations which this format has tended to entail for theoretical scholarship. It also facilitates meaningful intellectual exchange which isn’t tied to the publication process at all, extending conversations which might have previously taken place within closed networks (e.g. friends, collaborators) and providing the occasion for entirely new ones to take place. The fact these tend to be open by default means they are potentially a resource for others and even an invitation to join in.
  5. There might be pitfalls which are particularly pronounced for social theorists. Social media can amplify existing tensions or create new ones, with the risk that existing tendencies towards dogmatism are made worse. Therefore it’s important to understand what one considers a useful exchange (or otherwise) to be and how to orientate oneself towards ensuring this takes place.

I’ll try to illustrate each of these points with examples of social theorists using social media in this way. I might also introduce a couple of extended case studies (probably Daniel Little) to flesh out these points towards the end of the talk. Any further suggestions are much appreciated. It’s likely I’ll run this session in the UK later in the year, if it gets a good reception.

These are points I feel I reach relatively frequently, as identifiable discursive predicaments lead discussions between people who might otherwise agree to instead break down:

  1. Agreement with an argument in principle but concern about the practical implications of that agreement. For example if a particular issue has suddenly become prominent in public debate, it will inevitably be argued that there are other issues worthy of attention or other facets of the issue in question that might be rendered invisible by the currently dominant framing. This is a problem if, for instance, there are others seeking to suppress the issue which is now visible and recognising the current framing as lacking comprehensiveness might inadvertently strengthen the case of those seeking to engage in this suppression.
  2. Agreement with a argument in principle but concern about the context within which it is being made. There might be a critique of a current state of affairs which is persuasive on its own terms, while nonetheless being liable to lead to action which will bring about less desirable outcomes than the original state of affairs. The context qualifies the agreement with the argument but it is still agreement, at least in principle.
  3. Regarding an argument as intrinsically prone to overstatement, while nonetheless accepting a kernel of truth at its core. The argument is usually made in a hyperbolic way, often for self-interested reasons but one of the things that explains this repetition is the fact there is a degree of accuracy to it in at least some contexts.

These discursive predicaments can often be negotiated in face-to-face communication, with initial misunderstanding giving way to an appreciation of the subtle forks in the road which prevent unqualified agreement. However this is much less likely to happen on social media. Would have terms to describe these discursive predicaments contribute to a marginal increase in the likelihood that the conversation would continue?

What is social media for? This is the question I’ve found myself asking after spending the morning responding to this, as I contemplate calling it a day on the blog I’ve been editing for over seven years. I obviously have a stock answer to the question: social media is for all the things scholars did prior to social media, simply offering new means to these ends, as well as a few new ones. If you really wanted me to be schematic, I’d say it’s for building networkspublicising your workengaging with publics and managing information. Those are the purposes I discussed at length in my book anyway.

However it would be dishonest to leave it here. As social media advocate and workshop facilitator, I answer the question by referring to the useful things which academics can do with social media. But the specificity of academics is not exhausted by their work, greedy though this social role might be, raising the question: what is social media really for? What is it for in addition to those useful things one can do with it? How might this feed back into the narrowly professional uses of social media, leaving an unspoken surplus which lingers on the periphery of our consciousness, after we have accounted for our use in terms of our professional responsibilities?

There are lots of ways to characterise this. Marcus Gilroy-Ware recently framed it as filling the void. Jodi Dean writes of the affective intensities entrenching our capture by digital media. It could be a useful exercise to produce a review article collecting these attempts to characterise the psychic excess of social media use. But meanwhile the great twittering machine trundles on, something which I feel I’ve been far too bound into for a long time and increasingly long for distance from. I wonder how much subtle dissatisfaction there is elsewhere, amongst other academic users of social media, as well as how it finds expression in their lives (or doesn’t).

It feels impossible for me to withdraw from social media entirely. Mainly because it’s integral to my day job, as well as for many of the projects I’m involved in. Plus I derive too much satisfaction from blogging. But it’s becoming clear to me that I’m happiest when I’m away from social media. It’s increasingly obvious to me that I don’t actually enjoy the blooming, buzzing confusion which it lends to my experience of the world. I’ve also claimed to be writing a book about digital distraction for the last couple of years, without getting this much further than the elaborate collection of notes which this blog represents.

Therefore I plan to take an extended break. Hopefully much longer than the month last autumn which confirmed my growing dissatisfaction with social media. I’m writing this partly as an explanation for my absence, as well as suspecting it might be a useful auto-ethnographic note when I’m later writing about these questions in a professional capacity. It’s pretty easy to work out how to contact me through means other than social media so I’ll leave that to you.

This is a question which Zeynep Tufekci recalls in her Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, posed to a group of young Turkish activists about 140journos, a crowdsourced citizen journalism project which they started. As she writes on pg 37:

In Turkey, like much of the Mediterranean, there is a tradition of slow, conversational drinking that is the opposite of a loud, hurried bar scene. Such conversational drinking often leads to discussions of politics. The stereotype of these all-night drinking locales in Turkey is that everyone has a plan to “save the nation” after the first glass of raki, a strong aniseed-based drink that is considered the national liquor (it is nearly identical to ouzo, the Greek national drink). In a previous era, an all-night drinking and talking session on the sorry state of news and the extent of censorship might have ended merely in a hangover the next day. Even if it might have gone further—for example, the people might have decided to try to start a journal or a newspaper—a lot of work, resources, and luck would have been required. However, unlike citizens in a previous era for whom frustration with mass-media bias had engendered little more than sour feelings the next day or an uncertain, lengthy, journey, these young men—only four of them—immediately conceived 140journos, a crowdsourced, citizen journalism network on Twitter.

The low costs involved facilitate a particular culture of project work, comfortable with sometimes vague aspirations and working out the details on the fly. But while Tufekci’s interest in this concerns activism, I wonder about the effects in other spheres. What about higher education for instance? What Dave Beer describes as ‘punk sociology’ shares much of the mentality which Tufekci describes. 

It’s conventional wisdom that Corbyn’s leadership campaign was the target of brutal coverage by the media. I was interested to learn in The Candidate, by Alex Nunns, that this wasn’t quite how the campaign itself saw the situation. Understanding why can help elucidate the surprise that was #Election2017. From loc 4591-4556:

Ask some of Corbyn’s allies about the press coverage they received during the leadership contest and a surprising response comes back. “There are very few campaigns on the left that I’ve been involved in where we’ve had good press,” says Jon Lansman, “but this is one of them.” His definition of “good press” is unconventional, a variation on ‘all publicity is good publicity.’ Of course there was hostility, but the campaign managed to connect with its intended Labour audience in spite of it. “We always made the agenda. The others didn’t get a look in. We were the story throughout.” It was all about Corbyn. Because of the scale of interest, the campaign’s press officers found that along with the dross came greater opportunities to place their stories in the media than would normally be afforded to a left candidate. “The majority of things we tried to land landed, and in the ways we wanted them to land,” says James Mills, who was seconded to the press team from CWU. Whatever was being thrown at them, Team Corbyn pushed on with scheduled policy announcements, getting out a positive message that Mills believes cut through.

This dynamic within the print media played out in turn within the broadcast media. Not only were the campaign setting the agenda, with journalists responding in ever greater numbers to the issues they were raising, it led to increasing television coverage which highlighted the mismatch between the construction of Corbyn as a dangerous radical and the nice beardy chap who no one could really take much of a personal dislike to. From loc 4530:

Broadcast media followed a journalistic agenda that was still largely set by newspapers, despite the precipitous decline in their circulation. But broadcast had an inbuilt corrective missing from print—viewers and listeners could see and hear Corbyn for themselves. “They threw everything at Jeremy and it was so over the top that when he came on TV you expected him to be a combination of all sorts of villains,” says McDonnell. “When he came across as just a nice bloke answering questions honestly, that was it.”

This is something which the media themselves could be drawn into. As Phil BC insightfully pointed out some time ago, professional commentators are prone to confuse an absence of the presentational skills common amongst the political elite with a profound naïveté, as if Corbyn and McDonnell hadn’t spent their entire lives negotiating the political machine with some success from a position of marginality. As he asked in response to media astonishment at McDonnell’s apparent competence in his first speech at a Labour conference as Shadow Chancellor, “Were they really expecting him to commit Labour to a programme legislating for full communism?”

An escalating media campaign against Corbyn brought him endless ‘earned’ media, while offering an opportunity for the public to make up their own mind about the hyperbolic cliches in terms of which such media warfare was inevitably fought. If he got dragged into this, perhaps punching back against the onslaught, he likely would have been torn apart as self-defence would be cast as ‘gaffes’ and replayed endlessly. But by choosing to ignore media condemnation, in a way analogous to but different from Trump, it could be exploited for the benefit of the campaign. A similar effect was at work with denunciations from within the party. After Blair’s famous speech in which he attacked members drawn towards Corbyn as needing a heart transplant, the campaign saw an immediate influx of donations and volunteers.

I’d like to understand the mechanisms at work here: when do media attacks have their desired effect and when do they simply drive welcome coverage of a candidate? How does social media work to undermine the former and bring about he latter? One clear effect is that fighting back against this media onslaught can provide a way for followers to participate. There are legitimate issues which can be raised around ‘digital activism’ but I find it plausible that this social media activity helped the campaign consolidate, amplified its message and drew people into ‘offline’ participation. Though how, if at all, these effects worked to blunt media attacks is a more complex question. From loc 4530-4545:

Perhaps the most important factor explaining why the press onslaught backfired was the existence of social media. The old press no longer enjoyed a monopoly on having a voice. Through Facebook and Twitter ordinary people could critique and rebut journalists’ output directly. “Every time the mainstream media attacked Jeremy the social media shield would go up around him, bat it off, and get to the truth of the matter,” says Marshajane Thompson. Research carried out by YouGov in August 2015 found that 57 per cent of Corbyn supporters cited social media as “a main source of news,” compared to around 40 per cent for backers of the other candidates. 78 “Part of the reason why they were spending so much time on social media was because they didn’t trust the traditional media any more,” believes Ben Sellers. One of the main functions of the Corbyn For Leader social media operation run by Sellers and Thompson was to circumvent the press, both by publicising the explosion of activity happening all around the country, and by curating the mainstream media to pick out the half-decent reports (“sometimes that was a struggle,” Sellers quips).

There was an interesting finding before the election that there were more Labour tweeters who also tended to tweet more. There is a wide network, retweeting Labour candidates, with a larger and sustained focus on Corbyn than was the case with the Conservatives. Identifying what role this played in the general election will be central to understanding the rise of Corbyn. My suggestion is that the use of social media in the earlier leadership election would be a useful place to begin this inquiry.

When Tweets Turn Sour: Avoiding Legal Pitfalls on
Social Media
2 hour masterclass, £12-13 per person
When:6-8pm, Wednesday 28th June 2017
Where: NUJ,Headland House, 72 Acton Street,
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Who for: Anyone using Twitter for PR,
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Pressure on journalists to use social media grows daily,
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cyber offending.

How has social media contributed to the growing success of Corbynism? In asking this question, we risk falling into the trap of determinism by constructing ‘social media’ as an independent force bringing about effects in an otherwise unchanged world. This often goes hand-in-hand with what Nick Couldry calls ‘the myth of us’, framing social media in terms of the spontaneous sociality it allegedly liberates as previously isolated people are able to come together through the affordances of these platforms. It’s easy to see how one could slip into seeing digital Corbynism in these terms: the power of social media allowed ordinary labour members to come together and take their party back from the Blairite bureaucrats. Such a view would be profoundly misleading. But social media has been crucial to events of the last few years in the Labour party. The challenge is how we can analyse this influence without allowing ‘social media’ to take centre stage.

It’s useful to see these issue in terms of institutional changes within the Labour party. Membership had declined from 405,000 in 1997 to 156,000 in 2009. The election of Ed Miliband in 2010, with his union-backing and soft-left presentation, led to a surge of 46,000 new members. This stabilised throughout the parliament, with continued new members replacing those who left or lapsed, before another small surge took membership past 200,000 in the run up to the 2015 election (loc 377). The fact this influx of new members took place while social media was on the ascendancy in the UK implies no relationship between the two trends. But it’s interesting to note that substantial numbers of new (or returning) members were coming into the party at precisely the moment when new tools and techniques for interacting with each other and with the party itself were coming to be available.

It is convenient for some to blame social media for how events unfolded. We see this view reflected in the complaints of some on the Labour right that the nomination for Corbyn in the first place represented MPs crumbled under an orchestrated social media onslaught. However as Nunns ably documents, we can see a clear political calculus at work in many cases, with many feeling the need to keep the left onside, within their constituencies and beyond. In some cases, he speculates, such pressure provided an excuse to act on pre-existing concerns. There can be a cynical aspect to attributing causal power to social media, deflecting the assertion of incoming members and refusing to engage with developing trends that might threaten one’s political self-interest.

However what fascinates me is those for whom these events were inexplicable. In a way, it is a flip side of attributing power to social media, even if there might also be a cynical aspect to such a judgement. We account for events we don’t understanding by blaming a mysterious new element (‘social media’) which interrupted something that was previously harmonious. If these events are seen as inexplicable, what does it say about the person making the judgement? As Nunns observes, it was the subterranean nature of Corbyn’s early campaign which allowed later mass rallies and mass actions to appear as if they were the work of some malign outside agency. The processes through which he gathered support were largely invisible to party insiders and this rendered the eventual outcomes close to inexplicable.

Hence the preponderance of bewildered lashing out, vacuous psychologising and conspiratorial theorising about a planned influx of far-left activists. These tendencies are more pronounced when the activity in question is disorganised. As Corbyn’s press spokesperson described the leadership campaign, this central organisation which sought to direct national activity was often “at the reins of a runaway horse”. To a certain extent these incoming groups were disorganised, sometimes acting in ways which reflected that, striking fear in the heart of some MPs familiar with limited contact with ‘the public’ under strictly defined conditions. These ‘normal people’ might prove baffling to career politicians:

We can see a positive myth of us and a negative myth of us, defined by a shared belief that social media has facilitated a transformation of the Labour party. Where they differ is in whether that involves authentic members taking their party back or outside agitators invading the party with malign intent. If we want to understand the role of social media in bringing about Corbyn’s ascent, we need to reject both and look more deeply into how the new tools and techniques they offered were just one amongst many factors in bringing about a profound transformation in British politics.