The Revolution Will Not Be Twitterised

4chan seems to have been in the news a lot recently, and the /b/tards have been presented in a rather more sympathetic light than hitherto. I’m used to thinking of 4chan in terms of Lolcats and trolls, a place I’m aware of but would never admit familiarity with, at least in polite company. (Though naturally I’ve always had a soft spot for their war on Scientology). It jars a little then to see the Anonymous masses described as “internet activists” who have apparently developed some sort of social conscience.

The immediate cause of this rehabilitation, around here at least, seems to have been 4chan’s role in tracking down the infamous kitty-binner, a popular move in our pet-loving nation. They followed this up with something more substantial; going after ACS:Law, the UK lawyers notorious for their intimidation of alleged file-sharers. (Ars Technica has an excellent dissection of ACS’s reprehensible shakedown scheme). 4chan’s “Operation Payback” looks like it may put the final nail in the coffin of aggressive copyright enforcement, in the UK anyway, which can only be a good thing for both consumers and content creators, if not for lawyers.

Any romanticisation of the 4chan crowd as mischievous scamps who stand up for the little guy and stick it to the Man is obviously absurd, but it does tie in with a more general idea that the internet, and social media in particular, have levelled the political playing field, and given the ordinary citizen a weapon to wield against the power elites who run the world. One hears this from all sides; Peter Ludlow had an article in the The Nation this month on “Hacktivism”, specifically referencing Wikileaks and 4chan, over at World Affairs they think that Twitter will bring down the Chinese government, and Tea Party organisers laud the power of Facebook.

Perhaps I am just too wedded to old Bolshevik notions of the vanguard party, but I am very sceptical about all of this. While the web may be able to facilitate ad hoc attacks like “Operation Payback”, the sort of sustained campaign that would be needed to really change society requires a central organisation to give operational and, more importantly, political direction to the movement.

Substituting diffuse social media links for a more traditional party structure seems attractive, but I think it may be counterproductive. It might feel like one is part of a collaborative enterprise, but it is more atomised than it looks, and there is little opportunity to develop a collective consciousness. The Twitterverse has no effective memory, and there is no mechanism for a social media movement to learn from its experience. These things – pooling knowledge and experience, remembering mistakes and lessons, passing it all on to new generations – are the functions of a revolutionary party, and I can’t see that there is any way to replicate them virtually.

Internet activism can burn bright, and it has the potential to score transient victories, but I think it lacks the stamina for the long, hard slog that is the struggle to challenge entrenched power. If you want to change the world you have to face the truth:

You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.

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