Leaf through a newspaper. Flick to any news channel. Scroll through some headlines. Everything stinks. Unfortunately, in this atmosphere of so much disorienting and smelly badness, it’s easy to think we ought to inform ourselves before taking any action. Certainly, knowledge will be key to any real involvement, but we don’t need to put our face into the pile our dog left before we grab a bag and clean up the mess.
Waiting for a perfect understanding to take our first step of action is a mistake, and thinking social media will help fill in our understanding is an even bigger one. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be helpful in accomplishing what you really ought to be doing: retitling the news, not just receiving it.
Keeping us informed is not really what social media promised, but it does, at least, offer us a way to connect with others no matter the distance, and to perhaps allow us to remind others that our story is important too. Now, whether anyone will ever be capable of summarizing all their importance in 140 characters is debatable. Descartes did it in 15 characters without the help of emoticons or abbreviations. Matsuo and Soseki regularly did it in just 17 syllables. You and I, of course, are far more loquacious, certainly more prosaic, and admittedly more dedicated to scrolling, double tapping and tuning out the world around us than engaging in it.
As a medium for civic engagement, the character limitations of social networks (or maybe just the attentional deficits the medium provokes in all of us) are quite lacking. As far as civic engagement goes, however, there is no perfect system. What came before Facebook, Twitter and Instagram was no better, and we shouldn’t blame ourselves on behalf of an older, supposedly “greater” generation.
Jürgen Habermas has spent his lifetime defining and critiquing the public sphere– the supposed site of communication in all societies, where free-thinking individuals come together to discuss and imagine solutions to social ills. Unfortunately, his old ass has little to say about Twitter regardless of what plenty of hardworking communication theorists posit. He is just too old, and network society is just too young.
But for many of my young students, the idea of the hashtag is fundamental to their lives. They have come through their college education and grown into consciousness right alongside #BlackLivesMatter and #NoDAPL. Me? I checked out, stupidly, at #Swag, mistakenly believing the whole system was defunct, not remembering that potpourri owes itself to a field of manure.
Now, of course, I realize how important the hashtag is to social movements and to sounding the digital cries of civil unrest. Fortunately, youth identities and ideologies are already informed by the social network and even formed out of that context. It’s only a matter of the generation now coming into political power (ours, I think) to really begin learning from the youth.
So here we are– most likely with an Instagram account showing off our cat or a Twitter account reposting the thoughts of our favorite celebrity– trying to figure out how we might take up responsibility for our world in the age of social networks. Like it or not, here we are, and it’s our job to make the most of it. But, how?
The first step is returning to our high school civics class, remembering that ours’ is a republic and a confederation of semi-autonomous states under an overarching federal government composed by an executive, legislative and judicial branch. For all that structure in our government, we most simply live in a representative democracy. We, as a collective, are meant to elect a number of individuals that we believe will have our best interest in their mind as they engage in the real political process: legislating, judging and executing laws.
In the US, we tend to think that it is the two parties that determine our needs or, worse yet, determine the economy and our livelihoods. But this is a falsehood. Politicians remain public servants. Unfortunately, politicians have created a system where our vote often comes at the expense of others like us, but rarely at the expense of politicians’ lofty careers. Though, that kind of analysis is something to be explored in another article.
After taking stock of the system, the next step is recognizing that once elections have taken place, whether our candidate has won or lost, we still have agency to act. We can always impress upon those same powers our ongoing concerns and continually check their performance. And, of those powers, it’s the legislators upon which we really ought to focus our attention. They are the senators and house representatives that not only check and balance those other branches of government, but that are most closely meant to represent our district, state, and therefore, our stake in the process.
In eras past, letter writing campaigns, marches, and even op-ed pieces in the regular news media were valuable channels whereby citizens could exert such pressure. But stamps are expensive now, our walking shoes are more fashionable than functional, and that news media route? Well, it’s too easily appropriated by the wealthy, loud and obnoxious (see for instance, Donald Trump’s 1989 campaign, wherein he bought full page advertisements in major New York news publications, urging a concerted social hate be imposed against five black and hispanic youth during a Central Park rape case, thereby inflaming social unrest and likely leading to those defendant’s’ conviction for a crime of which they were totally innocent). But, again, that’s a story not even 435 characters could summarize.
So what is the third step? If being absolutely informed is not immediately important, and if we recognize the limitations of our actual engagement in the public sphere, how might we start to affect actual change? Well, we must recognize that every event or bit of new information we experience has the power to change how we see the world. While this is easy, the struggle is building beyond the moment, turning that moment into something that moves through time, that sweeps up and clarifies new events and new information, and that ties them together neatly as a single narrative– a narrative, hopefully, of change. Recall that America long ignored police brutality and systemic racism against African Americans until Garza, Cullors and Tometi retitled so many events under one unifying story: #BlackLivesMatter.
The essential question then, is not how might we stay informed; but how might we hashtag everything we encounter to at least retitle the story? How far might our shortened titles go in keeping the essence of what we know is important in the forefront of our minds? And, finally, how can we create an audience that will respond back, tagging moments in their own lives in reflection of that same narrative? In other words, and to force this terrible metaphor, how might we know the thing is shit even before our foot meets it on the sidewalk?
Remember, we are still functioning under the same supposed rules that govern the public sphere: free minds discussing real solutions. Only now we have no excuse not to contribute to some more powerful collective voice. We have entered the era of the click economy. Likes, hearts, and reposts carry actual weight under the gaze of those algorithms that run our networks.
We have no excuse not to follow our government representatives and meddle in their social network. Engaging in that all too confusing confluence of variables that pushes something to the tops of people’s’ feeds. Urging that ghost in the machine to rank their reality by some new bubble, relevance, history, geography, or whatever other abstract set of features are included in putting our social network stench under their nose. The point is, with enough momentum posts can be sniffed out by traditional news media, and with still more momentum a post might make enough of a stink that legislators and judges won’t be able to ignore it.
If we seek the most minimal, but-no-less-important method of social engagement in the public sphere this is most certainly that. Social networks are simply not enough– neither to stay informed nor to affect real change. But there is no shame in committing to that minimum. Truly. I am sure we would all rather have at least a dozen silent nods aiming our attention at the brown pile in our path, even if nobody was exactly sure what it was or were yet entirely capable of picking it up themselves. I’m sure, better yet, we would all rather see others commit to the slightest of eye rolls and puffs of breath meant to shame the owner of that mutt from leaving our world in such a disorienting state of smelly badness. Social networks, in how they nod and name stories anew are exactly that. They require only the slightest commitment from our collective, but might just be a good first step.
Though if the result of #NoDAPL is any indicator, the sad truth is that over the next four years our president will be fully capable of sitting next to a steaming pile of shit, one he pulled out of the trashcan where our previous President had left it. He’ll rub his bronzed face in it while maintaining that miserable little grin, and say he’s not received one sniff of resistance.
Ruben Enrique Campos is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and works in the Department of Ethnic Studies. He studies culture and society, usually with a focus on issues of race, ethnicity, gender and class inequalities. He’s currently writing his dissertation on the Hip Hop scene in Mexico City, where he lived and conducted intensive fieldwork for just over a year. Aside from constantly struggling to write, read and be a serious academic, he listens to music, reads comic books and exhibits a serious waste of potential.
Artwork by: James Ormiston.