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].”