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Campus News : December 2012
Writing in the London Review of Books about her experiences with Occupy Wall Street, Astra Taylor describes a moment when she and other protesters gathered in a church to discuss their plans for a debt resistance movement. Suddenly a man bursts in. “Right now,” he shouts, “people are getting arrested downtown and you are just sitting here talking! The least you could do is get your phones out and Tweet or Facebook about it.” Tweeting as a form of political action? It’s tempting for sceptics to say: “Hang on – isn’t Tweeting a substitute for political action, different in almost every imaginable way from the real thing?” But the belief that social media have become powerful instruments in the hands of revolutionaries has a strong grip on the popular imagination. That belief has been reinforced by accounts of the role of social media in the so-called Arab Spring, where thousands of people were apparently encouraged to participate in protests by messages appearing on their mobile phone screens. It’s also been fuelled by stories of the increasingly sophisticated use of social media in US presidential election campaigning, to stimulate engagement in the political process via donations, volunteering and getting people out to vote. Some pundits now regard social media as a potent tool of democracy, not only opening up a new channel of influence for the power elite, but also giving a voice to the voiceless and creating a way for grass-roots ideas and opinions to be instantly expressed and widely canvassed. All true. It is also true that, in the shadowy world of cyberspace, people sometimes pretend to be someone other than themselves; to express extreme views they need not defend; to behave vilely towards other people in ways they never would if face to face with them. Like every other medium of information transfer, social media create a space where we ourselves can choose what to put in and what to take out. Social media are not doing things to us; we are doing things with them. So what do we do with them? Overwhelmingly, the content we post is not designed to change the world, overthrow tyrants, or even bring prime ministers undone. Most of the messages scattered across the social media are as trivial and soon forgotten as confetti in the wind. They are mostly mundane and self-serving. Revolution is not the focus – we are. Recent research from Ipsos Australia suggests that users of Facebook are well aware of this, some now complaining about “the culture of narcissism and self-absorption”. Who’s surprised? Isn’t this precisely how social media like MySpace came into being – as vehicles for self-promotion by musicians, writers, assorted celebrities and others looking for cheap and efficient ways to spread the word about themselves and their wares? The benefits to democracy, if any, are perhaps no more than an unintended consequence. Social media is an ambiguous beast. Sometimes, Facebook is simply a grapevine that works much like any other grapevine, encouraging gossip, prejudice and the exchange of information about what’s going on around the village – who’s up to what, who’s in trouble, who’s not – often with a judgmental edge. Sometimes, it’s more like an electronic campfire, flickering away in the dark while we sit around it, murmuring and mumbling, drowsily saying whatever comes into our heads and occasionally tossing on a bit more fuel to keep it going. And sometimes it reverts to type, crackling with the shameless propaganda of self-promotion. Twitter, by contrast, seems to imbue some of its devotees with a sense of grandiosity, as if it had the power to transform them into a kind of digitised oracle, dispensing gobbets of wisdom to a waiting world. Rupert Murdoch solemnly Tweets that Australia’s seat on the UN Security Council is pointless; politicians vouchsafe their deepest thoughts to us in 140 characters, max; celebrities foster the illusion of connectedness with their followers, Tweeting them the crumbs of a carefully constructed “intimacy”. We are clearly in the thick of a media revolution, and perhaps a social revolution as well. But is it good or bad? It’s good when we use Facebook to augment our active personal relationships; bad when we let it erode or replace them. It’s good that our need for tribal connection is now so easily and continuously satisfied; bad when we become addicted to this kind of stimulation. It’s good that far-flung friends and families can keep more closely in touch than previously; bad when we fail to notice what we are losing in the retreat from the richness and complexity of face to face conversation to the simplicity and convenience of a Twitter or Facebook post. It’s good that the socially isolated can feel included; bad when we surrender to the idea that artificial media of communication are bringing us together when they are actually making it easier for us to stay apart. And their political power? Jeremy Bird, national field director of US President Barack Obama’s re- election campaign, recently told The New Yorker that the single most effective medium in reaching a potential Obama voter was “contact from an enthusiastic human being”. I hope that doesn’t surprise you. *Social researcher and author Professor Hugh Mackay is an honorary Professor of Social Science at the University of Wollongong’s Institute for Innovation in Business and Social Research. HERE’S A NOVEL APPROACH: LIKE ME OFF FACEBOOK BY PROFESSOR HUGH MACKAY* ...the belief that social media have become powerful instruments in the hands of revolutionaries has a strong grip on the popular imagination UOW Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Judy Raper (pictured left) and the Director of Innovation and Commercial Research Elizabeth Eastland (pictured right), have been listed among Australia’s ‘100 Women of Influence’ by The Australian Financial Review and Westpac. Professor Raper featured in the Public Policy category and Ms Eastland in the Local/ Regional category. More than 350 women were nominated, with candidates being judged on their demonstrated vision, leadership, innovation and action in and beyond their field. BG UOW’S ‘WOMEN OF INFLUENCE’ 2 CONNECT :UOW DECEMBER 2012 CONNECT: OPINION UOW 597 ConnectUOW.indd 2 UOW 597 ConnectUOW.indd 2 3/12/12 11:32 AM 3/12/12 11:32 AM