We held an event on 27 Feb 2013 to answer this question.
Early pioneers of the internet hailed this new medium as the harbinger of person to person media. A new media that will destroy government and corporate hierarchies and allow us to create new identities and have more freedom. Less prosaic perhaps but even more pervasive has been the claims by many others that it will usher in an age of media and marketing that is more communitarian, conversational and authentic.
A description of what was said, together with the audio recordings, are below.
Eva and Wendy talked about the early days of communication, about Bulletin Boards technology such as The Well and co-founding the first Internet cafes in the world, Cyberia, in 1994. These early online spaces were characteristically different to those today because they were completely separate from the rest of your life and friends. There was a sense of shared technological discovery amongst the early Internet pioneers. It was also very difficult to get online and much of the discussion was about supporting people to do this. The Well was one of the first Bulletin Boards to debate political topics, and it was here that John Perry Barlow of Electronic Frontier Foundation called for governments to back off and leave cyberspace to self-govern and to be free. There was a sense of freedom of identity as the majority of bulletin boards were anonymous. This is very different to today’s online culture where your offline and online identities are very close if not the same.
In the UK it was the Raver community which was first to use social media for political purposes. They used the Net since 1994 to protest against the criminalisation of the Rave movement under John Major’s government. The Ravers were supported by the Zippies (Hippies with a Zip) who organised the first Distributed Denial of Service attack on government servers on Guy Fawkes’ night in 1994. The Ravers then used social-media to organise themselves in their fight against discrimination. (Eva is wearing a Smiley Acid House dress).
Listen to the Audio recording of Eva and Wendy
Wessel van Rensburg – Co-founder of RAAK, social media agency
In 1996 Wessel discovered the Net through the Raver communities of NetRaver and RaveSafe in South Africa. He looked at the early goals and aspirations of the Net as described by Kevin Kelly, Stewart Brand, Howard Reingold, John Perry Barlow and Marshall Mcluhan. These included the characteristics of: being a peer to peer medium, a global community, bits versus atoms (the idea that cybersapce is different from the rest of the world), you can be anyone- no one knows your identity (“On the internet nobody knows you’re a dog”), a place for business not government, a meritocracy- from a garage you can build a successful business -and authentic versus manufactured popularity.
He goes on to examine the criticisms put onto the Net today:
– It’s making us lonely– Sherry Turkle and Robert Putnam’s research is in opposition to that of the Social Operating System which says people are more sociable than ever before
– It’s frivolous and empty– Facebook as the Reuters of inanity. Wessel disagrees and shows research that shows longer and more in-depth reading is on the up. Yes he says, there’s rubbish online but that is just the human condition (quotes sociologist Zeynep Tufekci).
– When the old media institutions disappear what will happen in terms of quality control and arbiters of taste- Wessel talked about a new hierarchy that is evolving based on your influence online.
Wessel argued that now we are networked individuals rather than communities. Your network is very different from mine and is global as well as local.
Wessel concluded with a Donna Haraway quote that we should use and shape technology and social media to the form we want it to be. Technology itself is agnostic.
Paolo Gerbaudo, Kings College
Paolo’s talk was based on social anthropological research from his book “Tweets and the Streets” which looks at how these two phenomena are related. They are related, he said, but in complex ways. It’s not as simple as putting out a hashtag and, suddenly, a social movement occurs!
Paolo talked in depth about social media activism, including Occupy in the US and the Indignados in Spain. He then focused on Egypt’s Tahrir Square and the response to Khaled Saeed, the blogger whose death became a symbol to rally around. He showed the very powerful image of a ‘collective public profile’ as many protesters changed their Facebook profile picture to Saeed’s, thereby becoming part of a movement greater than themselves and subjecting their individuality for the cause. He pointed out that there are 2.5m likes of Saeed’s page today, but that Facebook pages are not a medium that allows for debate between these individuals. Rather they function as a broadcast mechanism, the individuals cannot post to the group themselves.
Paolo coined the term Anarchopopulism 2.0 which he conceptualises as anarchic groups calling for direct democracy and for populist causes. He also points out that the majority of the population do not feel represented. Therefore they use social media to unite under a common group identity which Paolo called Majoritarianism (embodied in the Occupy 99%, and Anonymous’ We Are Legion).
Paolo concluded that we need to be aware that it’s not just small groups that can be organised online but also large mass movements. He says we should not be afraid of being liked or followed. Nor should we be afraid of being large in number.
Lee Bryant- Founder, HeadShift
Lee started off saying that the Net is neither Left (Communitarian) or Right (Libertarian) and the fact that it is mass is a good thing. He said that 65 years after Norbert Weiner there aren’t new ideas but the difference is that now technology has allowed these ideas to happen.
In the early days of the Net there were no corporate interests in The Well and Geocities (in 1994). Lee’s company was charging companies for creating blogs and they felt bad as all these tools were on the Net already for free. So they changed their business model and made social technology for organisations. He doesn’t see Social Media as being about marketing going forward, rather that this is an intermediary phase.
He talked about his aim to make organisations more social and make them less hierarchical. His vision is of a new sort of organisation where employees share protocols and values and work in new ways based on socialising business. He argues that companies can be more people-focused rather than process-focused and use transparency and intimacy as well as scale.
Lee concludes that our new super powers can arise if people join together in networks to solve problems.
Eva Pascoe summarised the speakers’ contributions noting the impact of many people in the room on what the Internet has become today. She said that the early days were about building the infrastructure and getting people online (and making it safe for women). Going forward we need to understand and leverage the power of the networks. She further encouraged people to experiment with the new social media tools to build stronger communities and businesses to accommodate more holistic human needs.
Summary written by Eva Pascoe and Niki Gomez