All the beads in the world

Already a month ago, there was a lengthy and a little heated debate among Korean Twitter users on whether Twitter is “changing the world”. As a debate, this is same old same old. Every time a new medium of communication has emerged, claims have invariably been made that it will revolutionise our lives. As media historians including Gitelman (2003) point out, “all media were once new” and the same romantic discourse has been put forward to describe how transformative they would be, whether they are zograscopes or telegraphs.

With this in mind, the more I think about ‘digital activism’, the more I become convinced that it is the false sense of triumph that actually hinders participants from achieving more. I presented this line of argument during my talk in Urbino in May, but let me briefly recap here.

When Rage Against The Machine beat X Factor winner Joe to Christmas No.1 last year thanks to all clicktivists, this comment left on the Guardian site caught my eyes.

Yes, why not? I don’t mean to belittle the democratising potential that such anecdotal incidents demonstrate, but as someone who has been researching the competing dynamics between the  vertical  institutional  structure  of  “the  social  [le  social]”  and  the  horizontal  networking  of  “sociality  [la socialité]”, in Maffesoli’s sense of the terms (1988), I can’t help but feel that when it comes to Internet-mediated activity, ‘potential’ is all we talk about. At a conference on young people, new technologies and political engagement a couple of years back, one of the keynote speakers, Stephen Coleman, mentioned in passing that on the topic of the political implications of new technologies, he could sense something was simmering under the surface – only not fully articulated just yet.

Since then, nothing has erupted, has it? One might cite the Iranian election protests and all, but to my knowledge, such efforts have never been sustained, nor have they been translated into something that would actually counterbalance institutions, in the long run. Perhaps, like Dylan Moran puts it, potential is best to be left alone (0:44). Or worse yet, “[Potential] is like your bank balance – you always have a lot less than you think.” (1:03) 😀

We could look at this from another angle though. I came across an interesting comment through retweets earlier. The user, capcold, stated that the most useful framework for understanding the potential and limitations of social media, collective intelligence, citizen journalism et cetera would be in fact a proverb handed down by generations of Koreans: “All the beads in the world won’t make a necklace until you string them together [구슬이 서말이라도 꿰어야 보배].”

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5 thoughts on “All the beads in the world

  1. Seriously though,

    Since The Newyorker dropped into my mailbox yesterday, I read the Malcolm Gladwell article you’ve been discussing elsewhere on the blog.

    A couple of thoughts.

    It is worth going back to some of the sociological writing from the 1980s that Gladwell alludes to or mentions. The work of people like Mark Granovetter (on the strength of weak ties) and Doug McAdam does help to discourage a facile or romanticized view of social movements. (I take this to be one of the points Gladwell is making.)

    Some of the examples Gladwell uses aren’t exactly compelling. He mentions how politically extreme groups in Germany were organized but one can think of counter-examples. The IRA in Northern Ireland, for example, decisively moved away from their traditional military structure in favor of a cell structure, precisely because the earlier structure proved less adaptable to modern urban guerrilla warfare.

    The ending of the article seems rather trite. I would guess the question is not an either/or one but rather a matter of under what social conditions (for the analyst to specify) participation becomes transformed into mobilization. This is a question, if I may say so, that you yourself have engaged with in interesting ways in your work on Nosamo.

    • I gather you saw my Tumblr. Yes, that’s precisely what I have been saying. Certain contexts encourage Internet-mediated political activity while others don’t. The change within the IRA is a fascinating (counter)example. Thanks.

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