Why We Don't Need Twitter
The Quiet Before, a new book on the origins of social change, reminds us that scale and speed are not friends of successful movements.
Gal Beckerman’s delicious new book, The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas, isn’t quite what the title implies. His introduction suggests that it’s about the roots of revolutions, the typically unseen efforts that we later recognize as having planted seeds of change. “People don’t just cut off the king’s head,” he writes. “For years and even decades they gossip about him, imagine him naked and ridiculous, demote him from deity to fallible mortal (with a head, which can be cut).” This talking, in Beckerman’s persuasive rendering, is what transforms a small group of people concerned with an injustice into a body with a purpose, and it’s a delicate process. “The incubation of radical new ideas is a very distinct process with certain conditions: a tight space, lots of heat, passionate whispering, and a degree of freedom to argue and work toward a common, focused aim.”
That’s from the first pages. Ten chapters later, it turns out The Quiet Before is about something else entirely: a plea for thoughtful deliberation in an age of cacophony. If you want to know how Nelson Mandela and his compatriots built the African National Congress into a force that could end apartheid, or how Lech Walesa and his comrades organized the inter-factory strike committee representing 500 factories where workers had all occupied their shop floors, spawning Solidarity, the first independent trade union in a Communist dictatorship, you won’t any answers in The Quiet Before. Because Beckerman is really after different game, not the organizing that turns dissent into power, but the spawning grounds for ideas that challenge the status quo.
For me, then, the most interesting part of his book are its last few chapters, where he wrestles with the impact of social media on the Arab Spring, the rise of the alt-right, how the US handled COVID-19, and the Black Lives Matter movement (a question that seems even more relevant now than a week ago, thanks to Elon Musk). Before Beckerman gets to these contemporary episodes, he delivers six chapters on earlier moments of civic germination—the “Republic of Letters” that knitted scholars across early Renaissance Europe as they did the science that challenged the Church’s devotion to heliocentrism, the Chartist movement of 1840s England which basically invented the mass petition as a tool to build a working class demand for universal suffrage, the manifestos that fired Italy’s Futurist movement in the 1910s and helped paved the way for the rise of fascism, the community sounding board that was the letters page of Ghana’s African Morning Post in the 1930s and how it incubated a new kind of African identity, the Samizdat movement of underground dissent and human rights advocacy in the Soviet Union before glasnost, and the homemade zines that powered the Riot Grrrls movement in the US in the early 1990s. What all of these episodes share is they were powered by paper and mostly moved slowly, reaching people at what my organizer friend Erin Mazursky would call “the speed of trust.”
It's only with his chapter on the Riot Grrrls phenomenon that Beckerman tips his hand, showing how the young women who started sharing their homemade magazines to assert their own identity against the male-dominated punk scene got overwhelmed by a rush of mainstream media attention. By the 1990s, after all, spotting new youth trends was big business. The nascent movement was barely off the ground before reporters from all kinds of fancy publications were crashing local meetings where young women were simply trying to talk to each other about their shared experiences and concerns about issues like sexual assault, eating disorders, or body image. Increasing the speed and scale of communication can kill a movement in infancy, Beckerman is suggesting.
If I had been Beckerman’s editor, I would have urged him to write a chapter about the Students for a Democratic Society, which concluded its first national convention in June 1962 with an eloquent manifesto written by a small group of organizers called The Port Huron Statement (for where it was conceived, at a UAW retreat center) and then grew explosively. James Miller’s history of SDS, Democracy is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago, shows how SDS’s ideas traveled faster than the formal organization could keep up, with people making copies of the Port Huron Statement and then forming new campus chapters on their own. This rapid growth destabilized the national SDS office, because the founders didn’t know the newcomers and no one had the time or wits to force things to slow down. That, plus the escalating pressure to oppose the Vietnam War meant that SDS was never able to focus on its early work doing community organizing for economic justice and quickly became factionalized. (This problem of managing rapid growth has afflicted many contemporary organizations, as this story on IfNotNow, the anti-occupation group, illustrates well.)
By the time we get to Tahrir Square and Black Lives Matter, Beckerman’s case for slow change is made. Facebook, he writes, gave democracy activists like Wael Ghonim the ability to rapidly reach a mass audience upset at the abuses of the Egyptian regime, but only by centering emotional appeals over intellectual plans. Tahrir toppled a dictator but didn’t remove the dictatorship; the young people who risked their lives in the square couldn’t agree about what they wanted to replace it with. (As I’ve written before, the Internet is good at No and bad at Yes.) Twitter, he suggests, made the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter into a universal slogan, but one that was millions of people wide and just a few pixels deep. A non-organizer who was an effective Twitter user named Deray Mckesson was thus able to convert his Twitter celebrity into a national leadership role that he never actually earned, as Beckerman shows. Patrice Cullors, one of the three co-creators of the hashtag, told Beckerman that “her biggest regret in those years was not having ‘copyrighted’ the hashtag that she had first used,” which is both understandable and disturbing. Understandable because she and her co-organizers Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi never had control of the thing they started; disturbing because of more recent stories describing the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation using money donated to BLM to buy a multimillion-dollar home that Cullors appears to have treated as her personal abode.
To his credit, Beckerman doesn’t focus much on BLM’s founders and instead examines how two local formations, the Dream Defenders of Miami and the Black Visions Collective of Minneapolis, maneuvered through the moment of uprising that exploded after George Floyd’s murder in late May 2020. The path to real change, he argues, was not in building a massive online presence but in the hard and steady work of building a constituency, keeping the core organizing group small enough to work together, developing relationships with local elected officials and showing up at forum after forum where police reform was at stake. Progress was slow, a few million dollars redirected from the cops to social services being the measure of change, something the new people joining the movement with “burn it down” energy had to experience to understand.
The Quiet Before ends with an epilogue that reminded me a lot of the closing chapter of my book The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn’t Changed Politics (Yet). After exploring how Big Tech, social media, and top-down tools for aggregating attention like Big Email hadn’t democratized democracy, like Beckerman I too needed to leave readers with some examples of people using tech to strengthen civic life. He finds promise in Taiwan’s use of consensus building tools like Pol.is; I pointed to platforms for civic problem-solving like SeeClickFix and Front Porch Forum. (If I have any quibble with Beckerman’s work it’s solely in his failure to credit Liz Barry for her seminal report on vTaiwan that we published in Civicist in 2016; he could have done a lot more with this section of his book.) The message is the same: as he puts it, “the internet, this network of networks, is where we live our lives in the twenty-first century. It has almost completely annihilated all those other modes of communication. So we need to ensure the possibility of those spaces apart, especially in a flattened, too-loud world that perceives dark corners only as dangerous. They are where the first inflections of progress can—and almost always do—occur.”
The question of how we foster such spaces, be they physical hubs like libraries or civic halls, or online hubs like a well-tended Discord community, seems more urgent now than just a few days ago, now that a megalomaniac with almost unlimited wealth, Elon Musk, has bought Twitter, one of the last semi-useful online town squares. If Musk does as the MAGA crowd hopes and reinstates Donald Trump’s account, that will be a sign that he doesn’t believe he has any civic responsibility to keep would-be dictators from abusing his platform. A contrarian might argue that reviving Trump’s biggest megaphone might be a gift to the Democrats, who seem to have no other compelling message in 2022 other than “don’t empower MAGA” but we should all be careful what we wish for. For me, the only silver lining in Musk’s move is that it may temporarily nudge a salient number of Twitter users into searching for a better alternative, one that might nurture more of the kinds of slow deliberation and intimate collaboration that Beckerman eloquently seeks. Because the truth is we don’t need Twitter.
Speaking of Twitter
—Ethan Zuckerman offers a few pointers to promising alternatives and semi-solutions, like Planetary.social, PubHubs and GoBo, and argues that instead of hoping a better billionaire comes along to buy out the bad ones who now own so many of our online platforms, we need to find platforms that want us to govern and fight for real interoperability between platforms, since we have a right to our content and our relationships.
—Danny Spitzberg and Nathan Schneider explain in Wired how the users could have taken over Twitter, a project they launched in 2016 which ultimately got 5% of the shareholders’ support at the company’s 2017 annual meeting. Lots of other projects are exploring the “exit to community” model they argue for, most notably Kickstarter, which recently announced plans to turn its crowdfunding product into a community-governed blockchain protocol.
—Here's the funny scenario for what happens next. Instead of Musk ruling Twitter and turning it into a “free speech zone,” the users turn the tables and make Twitter a toxic swamp for corporate accounts, ruining the platform’s revenue stream and hitting Musk where he is arguably most vulnerable.
Odds and Ends
—President Obama is very concerned about disinformation and its threat to democracy. He gave a whole keynote at Stanford about the issue last week. That’s why he’s spent the years since he left office working to raise $1.6 billion for … a monument to himself called the Obama Presidential Center, the most expensive presidential library in history by far. According to the Obama Foundation’s 2020 annual report, as of July 2021 he and his very well compensated colleagues (top leaders at the foundation make more than $500,000 a year according to its latest 990) had raised nearly $1 billion toward that goal, with $790 million of that going to the building itself along with collecting and displaying the artifacts it will hold. The big donors ($1 million+) to the foundation include such noted defenders of democracy as AT&T, the Boeing Company, the Exelon Corporation (which recently paid $200 million in fines for bribing Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan), and the Goldman Sachs Philanthropy Fund, plus lots of other well-intentioned donors who surely could do more for democracy with their million-dollar gifts than convert the cash into steel, glass and concrete.
—Leaving aside whether Obama has any standing to tell us anything useful about our priorities, Cory Doctorow zeroes in on the key flaw in the former President’s critique of Big Tech and its role in undermining democracy. The reason people have come to distrust authorities is not because tech is turbocharging disinformation, it’s because the authorities have failed us, he argues. In particular government is losing authority because it has failed to protect us from corporate power. “Obama would prefer to believe that Big Tech has a mind control ray because the alternative is recognizing that deference to corporate power has plunged the world into political chaos,” Doctorow writes, citing a litany of Obama administration failures, from his decision to bail out the bankers not the borrowers, his failure to address the opioid crisis, and his Justice Department greenlighting a wave of big corporate mergers.
—Facebook doesn’t know what it does with your data and has lost control of its use, according to an internal document written last year by privacy engineers on its Ad and Business Product team, Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai reports for Motherboard. That reminds me, neither does Amazon.
—Linguistics professor Emily Bender takes apart Steven Johnson’s recent paean in the New York Times Magazine to GPT-3, the large language model built by OpenAI that is impressing lots of people with its seeming ability to “master language.” So many people throw around the phrase “artificial intelligence” too casually, since what these programs are doing is nothing like thinking or reasoning, but using brute force to produce sentences or paragraphs that are statistically comparable to the massive amount of written text they’ve ingested. But it’s deeply seductive to write about AI that way, and Bender argues that instead of assuming that “thinking machines” would be great, “the relevant question[s are] …How do we shift power so that we see fewer (ideally no) cases of algorithmic oppression? How do we imagine and deploy design processes that locate technology as tools, shaped for and in the service of people working towards pro-social ends? and How do we ensure the possibility of refusal, making it possible to shut down harmful applications and ensure recourse for those being harmed?”
—I like this post by progressive Democratic strategist Mike Lux, who says that Dems can win back working class voters with economic populism, but they have to do more than talk (and advertise themselves talking) about it. Reporting on recent focus groups in rust belt counties hit hard by deindustrialization, he writes, “the less our ads sound like every other political ad, the better, and we ought to be focusing on reaching voters in other ways. Candidates and party committees should be spending time doing things like sponsoring community events like [Senator] Sherrod Brown’s ‘movie nights,’ which he does in the old movie theaters of Ohio’s mid-sized towns, where the theme is to build community spirit and togetherness. Or they could set up events that were community health clinics where people come in and get health care assistance that they couldn’t otherwise afford. Or Chautauqua style events, where musicians, community theater performers, poets, and community organizations spend a day in a community.” (You know who’s investing in this kind of voter engagement? The RNC.)
—Coming up: The next Building Structure Shapes event is May 17, focusing on ISAIAH, the Minnesota faith-based organization, featuring Abdulahi Farah, Brian Fullman and Doran Schrantz (ISAIAH), Ben Chin (Maine People’s Alliance), and Melanie Brazzell (P3 Lab). Register here.
I want one of these T-shirts.