Listening to social media

Earlier this year, the Internet scholar Clay Shirky said that governments systematically overestimate access to information and underestimate the power of citizens’ access to each other.  They tend to keep a watchful eye on synchronised groups, but worry less about individuals.  The problem for institutions of power, says Shirky, is that individuals are now increasingly synchronised, because of the social media tools they use in their daily lives.  Shirky ends his piece on a gently ominous tone:  “Just because someone isn’t talking about politics in their spare time doesn’t mean they won’t turn out in Tahrir Square when the serious business starts.”

In the past fortnight of political soul-searching and brinksmanship as the result of the divorce referendum in Malta was absorbed, you can also find some finger-pointing.  For pundits with anti-divorce sympathies, the mainstream independent media has to share as much of the blame for the way things turned out , as those who voted the way they did, despite the combined forces of ‘No’ campaign.     

There is a silent tribe in my country that is neither active in party politics nor historically vociferous in raising its voice on civic and political issues.  Yet increasingly it is this tribe that decides who seizes power when we go to the ballot box.  In a country with a legacy of polarised media systems, the pundits are still ignoring the fact that civil society now has access to a two-way, social media back channel of social networks, blogs and online videos that operates alongside the established, one-way, broadcast channels of TV, print and radio.  This citizen media is not necessarily balanced or professional, and is often raw, subjective and amateur.  What it lacks in journalism training it makes up in speed and immediacy.   It watches other media, institutions and politicians with the same glee that it comments on the Eurovision and a local music video.  And it may well have played a vital factor in swinging the result of the divorce referendum vote to the ‘Yes’ camp, because it is increasingly trusted by civil society as representative and democratic.

News these days spreads virally, like gossip, and often over mobile devices.  A feature on the Times is analysed not just on the paper’s online collateral, but is rapidly diffused on other mainstream and social media – and linked, tweeted, rehashed, commented and blogged.  This remix web is something we have not had much experience with in Malta.  In a society where power-brokers believe it is their right to use a newspaper as a personal billboard, as and when they wish, it has come as a shock to some to discover the voice of this parallel world.

The tipping point that brought the power of the individual to the fore was the arrival of the campaign billboards.  It felt like a revival of old, power tactics.  Online, individuals talked about how Malta was living a lie and how the billboards were treating them like idiots.  The back channel started with some grumbling in blogs and soon became a veritable stream of conversations, one to one, one to many.  For every billboard with Jesus, a woman with a black eye and a cut-out family, much more interesting virtual counterparts were appearing at a faster rate on Divorzistan, Moviment Tindahalx and Gandir Malta, disseminated on new blogs like Mazzun and gleefully ‘liked’, tweeted, shared and discussed online and over dinner.   In the final weeks of the campaign, while some endured the usual TV debates and surveys, another part of Malta rediscovered parody on Facebook and YouTube, and used Photoshop as a tool of democracy.  The signs that social media has become mainstream have been long there, with some 47% of the Maltese nation on Facebook alone and the return of older bloggers to the fray.  And yet, at times it seemed that only members of the ‘Yes’ campaign were making any attempt to engage in ‘public conversations’ on Facebook as the key issues unravelled. 

It’s too early to say quite what has changed, and what new lessons are being learnt.  Media embargoes and blackouts may become a thing of the past – simply because they cannot be enforced online.  The horribly mistimed ‘apology’ went viral and spread like wildfire on Twitter, before the 10pm curfew. If the online discourse is anything to go by, civil society in Malta is increasingly aware of its rights, and its duty to participate in public debate.  This is the online grassroots equivalent of the ‘pjazza’ and the ‘kazin’, except that the kazin is neither blue nor red, and some conversations are loud, and others reflective.   

Social media introduces substantial and pervasive changes to communication between organisations, communities, and individuals.  This presents an enormous challenge for politicians, institutions, the Church, large business interests and people with social capital who tend to rely on pressing the flesh to gain and sustain influence.  A new paradigm of relevancy may be emerging.  Power brokers need to understand that their job is not to provide us with data or even keep us updated — it is to serve our needs and remain relevant to our lives.

Is the change permanent?  Are we ushering a new generation of activism and citizen journalism?  Or will it be absorbed in the mainstream and silenced?  As I write, online polls are still sprouting on Facebook on the next civil issue to be addressed.  The list is growing as much as the chasm that seems to have appeared between citizens on the web and politicians struggling to reclaim their neo-liberal credentials.

Perhaps institutions and their power brokers could do with listening a bit more to what people are saying online and in citizen media, instead of continuing to assume that broadcasting and preaching to the converted is the way to go.  Of course, the long hot summer has just kicked in, the hegemony may rapidly paper over the cracks of the past months, and we may go on, as if nothing has happened.  Somehow, I doubt that.


This article also appeared in the Sunday Times of Malta on 12 June 2011.

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