Interview with Tim Hjersted of Films For Action

(Cross posted from Dialectical Films, with thanks.)

As research for a panel on the subject of ‘audiences’ at the Radical Film Network‘s inaugural conference earlier this year, I spoke to a number of media organisers and radical filmmakers about their work and how they survive while doing it. This is the second of two interviews I’ve published (the other being last week’s with Franklin Lopezof subMedia.tv), with the intention of inspiring, comforting and galvanising those making political work and no money.

Tim Hjersted is the co-founder and head of operations (note the lower case, not an official title) of political video site Films For Action. He and his colleagues have been collating and curating political films, images and articles for the last eight years, and at last count they had 400,000 followers on Facebook.

Tim kindly took time to answer my questions, and gave us an insight into his beliefs about fair compensation for activists, the work that goes into running a digital venture like this, ending with a lovely quote from Derrick Jensen about integrity and social media. (What more can you ask for from a concluding sentence?)

(FUN FACT: All of us in the previous paragraph are somehow connected – last night, I attended the launch of the Bristol chapter of Films for Action, headed by Andrew who has worked for Films for Action for the last couple of years and who I will now be working with in Bristol as part of the film festival I co-run; Franklin’s work at subMedia.tv was the theme of the night, some of which is a documentary called END:CIV about the work of radical environmentalist Derrick Jensen. Thanks to the internet, it’s a small world.)

ffa2

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What spurred you to start Films For Action?

Learning about the various ways that the mass media harmed society and filtered out important information led us to thinking about how we could ‘become the media’ in our own town, to help correct the deficiencies of our local media. We had seen a few activist films by that point, and one of our co-founders worked at an independent theater, so one night we were hanging out in a friend’s kitchen and we talked about the idea of hosting a film screening. This first event was a success – 320 people came, so we kept doing more. This article goes into more detail on how we got started: http://www.filmsforaction.org/articles/be_the_media_change_the_world_a_summary_of_films_for_actions_strategy_for_change/

Are you independently funded?

95% of our funding comes from advertising on the site. The other 5% comes from donations, which we really never promote, but the support we get from people is definitely appreciated. We’d consider this independent because Google Adsense doesn’t care in any way what kind of content we promote, as long as it doesn’t violate their common-sense restrictions. Soon, we’ll be doing PPV (pay-per-view).

Do you get any say in what Google advertises on your site or is it entirely random?

We have the ability to block certain ads or ad accounts, which we do fairly often to keep the ad experience as classy as possible. This is a constant battle though as there are always new ads coming in and we only personally see a small portion of them in daily use of the site.

Do you have another job/income source than Films For Action?

No – after 7 years working on this without pay, FFA has finally become financially able to support myself full-time, as well as 2 part time staff.

How many people work for/with Films For Action?

We have 3 paid staff, 2 of whom are co-founders. We also have 2 other co-founders who currently aren’t active but were for the first several years. We also get a lot of help from our site members, who make submissions to the site.

There’s Eli, who works part-time, maybe a third or fourth of the year, on back-end site coding and feature enhancements for the site. In September 2014, I hired a long-time contributing member of the site to do content curation (seeking out, reviewing, and publishing content on the site, then sharing it on Facebook). Andrew (Butler, who has just set up the Bristol chapter of FFA) lives in the UK and does 20 hours per month.

Then there’s me. I do everything else related to the project, mainly content curation like Andrew. I follow dozens and dozens of activist Facebook pages and websites to filter and scan for good content worth sharing, add the best stuff to the website and share it on social media. I also answer a ton of emails and occasionally speak with chapter leaders on the phone. I used to organize local film screenings but haven’t done that very much in the last couple years, although I occasionally offer advice to others who want to do it (see screening guide at the bottom of the page.)

We also have dozens of city chapters that operate independently from us, and each of those chapters has at least one chapter leader doing work locally. A lot of these chapters are at various levels of activity or inactivity.

Do you consider Films For Action to be politically and/or aesthetically radical?

Yes, politically, as in we try to seek out the root causes and the root solutions to society’s problems. Aesthetically we’ve designed the site to be appealing to a global, mass audience, without any obvious connotations (such as how many anarchist sites have a particular aesthetic which might turn off non-anarchists).

Do you consider your way of organising radical?

I’ve never thought of it is radical, but we’re certainly very different from conventional non-profits and media networks. Our organizing work might be considered anarchist in that we’ve pursued a DIY ethic from the beginning, not content that tries to persuade conventional media to change, or to get anyone else to try to solve these problems. We haven’t tried to appeal to any other non-profit groups, politicians or media to change. We recognized the problem and felt that the best approach would be to create a better media ourselves. The benefit of this is that it doesn’t require waiting on anyone or anything – hosting film screenings or creating a Facebook page or website is something anyone can do.

We’ve also tried to model the kind of organizational values that we believe should be a part of ‘the new media.’ In our case, the people working on FFA have operated in a tribal, non-hierarchical fashion. While I’ve been considered the leader or project director for many years now, decisions are made collectively by the people involved. I’ve frequently deferred to others preferences when there is a disagreement on some aspect of making changes to the site, or occasionally, with content choices.

I think the fact that our group started out among 4 close friends really helped us be productive and effective. We already shared a very similar political perspective, and we already got along really well. We each also had some expertise in a particular area. Because of this, we’ve avoided some of the pitfalls of groups which start out among a bunch of interested strangers who might show up to a public meeting to volunteer, and who may or may not have the relevant skills.

What is your (brief) definition of ‘radical’, if you have one?

To go to the root. To address root-causes.

Do you find any conflict between the work you do and earning money from it?

I used to share a commonly-held notion in our culture that any truly ‘good’ non-profit work should be done out of the goodness of your heart, but over the years I’ve come to see how this perspective is really problematic. Other activists fortunately helped me dispel this notion. Money in our society is an exchange of value, but presently our society holds entirely backwards notions of what is valuable in society. Sports players and movie stars may make millions of dollars, while teachers and social workers may barely make salaries above the poverty line. It doesn’t make sense to me that people doing some of the most important work in the world (including social change activists) should have to scrape by earning very little, while it is perfectly acceptable for people who work in the financial sector of our economy to produce nothing of any value for society but be making millions every year.

What is interesting is that very few question the ethics of making money from being a doctor or stock trading or serving food, but there is this perceived conflict for those doing social change work. I had this notion stuck in my head too, until I had a hour-long conversation with an activist who called me from Australia. He really helped me to see the value of my work and that there was nothing wrong with being paid to do something that is helping other people. It was his opinion that activists deserve to be compensated for their work, a lot more so than a lot of the jobs that are highly compensated.

This is something that I’ve also seen encountered frequently by documentary filmmakers. Because so many films are released for free, whenever a filmmaker isn’t financially able to do that and needs to charge people to see or buy the film, there are a lot of people that don’t really have any respect or understanding for the fact that filmmakers need to eat and make a living just like everyone else. Yes it’s certainly wonderful when a film can be released for free so that the film can reach a larger audience, but I think it’s unfair that filmmakers are expected to put so much work into their films but people balk when asked to pay to see it, because it’s in the social change category. Some filmmakers can afford to do it, some can’t. We should do our best to support the films that cost money, because for better or worse, money is one of those ways that we can show support for each other. It’s one of the ways that we give value to what people do.

What contact do you have with your audience/viewers?

We get lots of emails and Facebook messages. I also regularly read the comments we get on our Facebook posts. I try to respond to all our emails, and I reply a lot on our Facebook posts. It’s getting harder to respond though with the increasing volume of messages we get.

Which medium do you find to be most useful in terms of creating an audience or community around Films For Action?

Facebook. By far. It’s where 90% of our traffic comes from.

Was there one piece of work or event that led your audience to grow, or has it been mostly gradual/organic?

We’ve had several articles or videos go viral now, which gave us dramatic boosts in traffic a few times over the last 2 years. In between that it has been very gradual. We’ve been doing this for 8 years now and if you look at our growth curve the tail at the beginning is suppppperrr long. Things really only took off in the last 2 years.

Do you dedicate time specifically to building your audience, or have you let it happen organically?

Yeah, a little bit. Our main concern has been getting a high viewership for the content we share. This has meant optimizing the title and description of the videos to get a higher click-through and share rate. We’ve taken some lessons from Upworthy in this case, without going as far as they do. Sharing images has also been a good way to build our Facebook audience, more so than sharing links.

If our traffic goes up, that generally ties directly to increasing our Facebook community, so we’ve generally just focused on finding the most important and meaningful content, packaging it as best as we can and then getting it out there.

One interesting factoid is that 2/3 of our Facebook community is outside the US. This has made us focus on content that is relevant to people everywhere, not just the US.

Do you have any qualms using corporate social media, since you are running an anti-corporate media initiative? (No judgment, we all do it…)

No, not really. We’d certainly prefer if there were alternatives that were as widely adopted as Facebook is, but right now, it’s just the nature of the situation.

I’d rather see Facebook used for activist purposes and have some good come out of it then have it not used at all. If activists abandoned it, then it would just become even more entertainment and distraction-oriented and I don’t think that’d be any better.

Reminds me of a quote from Derrick Jensen: “The role of an activist is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much integrity as possible, but rather to confront and take down those systems.”

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Look for an FFA chapter in your city at their website, and if there isn’t one, create your own. Tim has written a guide to hosting your own public film screenings:http://www.filmsforaction.org/takeaction/films_for_actions_guide_to_hosting_public_film_screenings/

Follow @FilmsForAction on Twitter, and on Facebook, and watch and read their social change films atfilmsforaction.org.

Elizabeth Mizon is a writer, filmmaker and organiser based in Bristol, UK, and recently finished her first feature documentary The Fourth Estate. Follow her @elizabethethird.

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Interview with Franklin Lopez of subMedia.tv

(Cross posted from Dialectical Films, with thanks.)

As research for a panel on the subject of ‘audiences’ at the Radical Film Network‘s inaugural conference earlier this year, I spoke to a number of media organisers and radical filmmakers about their work and how they survive while doing it. This is one of two interviews I will publish, with the intention of inspiring, comforting and galvanising those making political work and no money.

Franklin Lopez is an anarchist video maker based in North America (though, as he noted early on in our conversation, he considers himself stateless) and creator of the video site subMedia.tv. He has been producing quality political videos (from feature length documentaries to collaborations with poets and mash-ups) for over a decade, all of which can be watched for free at the site, and he produces a monthly radical newsreel vlog that can be found there and on YouTube.

Franklin kindly took time to answer my questions, and thankfully gave some encouraging answers about the contact he has with his audiences, being fairly compensated for his work, and refusing to give up his political values in the name of ‘expansion’.

it's the end of the world as we know it and i feel fine, the stimulator, subMedia.tv, Franklin Lopez interview

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How did subMedia.tv and The Stimulator come about?

Well, subMedia and the stimulator are two different things. subMedia.tv is a website that published anarchist films me and my friends produce as well as other videos, and The Stimulator is the character of a web-vlog we produce called “It’s the End of the World as We Know It and I Feel Fine” or as we call it “The Fuckin Show”.

subMedia.tv was created as an independent venture, owned and funded outside of corporate media with the goal of broadcasting radical and anarchist films. The Fuckin Show was created to provide radical news and analysis on a monthly basis to an audience of radicals and anarchists, and those who are curious about radical and anarchist ideas. The Fuckin Show is supposed to be funny and provide much needed comic relief to the stuffy real of radical and anarchist discourse.

subMedia wasn’t always radical; we made political films with a liberal left sensibility, but it evolved over the years to be the rabble rousing agit prop propaganda media production house that it is today. So in 2001 while the US beat the drums of war, we felt a need to aid the anti-war movement, came into contact with anarchists and thus began this process that radicalized how and why we make films.

Are you completely independently funded?

150 per cent!

How the hell do you fund this operation?

Mostly small donations from viewers, some from DVD sales and some from screenings.

Is there one activity/source that provides the majority of your funding?

Viewers of our videos.

Do you have another job or source of income aside subMedia?

Once or twice a year I’ll do a gig, usually because it falls in my lap but not out of necessity. Last year I did one video for AJ+, the year before some TV channels bought some of our footage and films. Other people who collaborate with us have freelance gigs or are on welfare.

How many people work for and with subMedia?

Right now it’s three of us. Me on a full-time basis and two others on a part-time basis. We also have about 5 volunteers that dedicate a few hours helping us out with media production – in return, they learn video skills.

You are clearly politically radical. Do you consider your work aesthetically radical?

Sure, but I don’t think we’re breaking new ground artistically. We “steal” most of the footage and music we use, blatantly script in our politics no holds barred, use the language we fuckin want, try new things every chance we get.

Do you consider your way of organising and producing work radical?

Sure, one of the things we do that most people don’t notice is to be connected with movements, so a lot of the media that we produce is done with the hope to aid movements. For example, we take some direction from indigenous groups in so called “Canada” to create videos that will help them further their struggle.

What is your definition of ‘radical’, if you have one?

To get to the root of the matter, to not “sugar coat” or dumb down things, to tell it how it is.

Radical is antonymous to Liberal. Radical is antonymous to reformist.

Do you find any conflict between the work you do and earning money from it?

I’m not sure I understand the question. subMedia has been crowd funding since 2008, and we have never bent our politics in the hopes to generate more income. Sometimes our opinions have cost us viewers, but that’s the price you pay for being honest.

What contact do you have with your audience?

Lots. Emails, Facebook / Twitter / website comments, but my favourite is face to face during or after screenings.

Which social media do you find to be most useful in terms of creating an audience or community?

Unfortunately Facebook. We’ve had some success on Twitter, but we find more engagement on Facebook. It was a bit of struggle coming to terms with it, in terms of FB being a capitalist project with little regard to privacy, but our audience are not purists and I think most of them have fake profiles anyway.

Was there one piece of work or event that led your audience to grow, or has it been mostly gradual/organic?

The 2008 Democrat and Republican conventions. subMedia teamed up with a video collective out of Seattle called “Pepper Spray Productions”, and we cranked out 10 shows in 10 days bringing daily reports from the street protests. People at those convergences would gather to see what was accomplished and laugh a little before the following day of action. Same is true of our coverage of the G20 protests in Toronto.

Do you dedicate time specifically to building your audience, or have you let it happen organically?

We have never had the time or foresight to do a marketing plan, so things have happened organically.

Is it important to you to measure/follow this, or do you just sit back and let it grow?

I think it’s interesting to see where your audience is coming from and yes we would like to grow our audience, but not out of the desire to make more money, or just for the sake of reaching more people. We are more interested in reaching the right people, i.e. people who are most likely to engage and get involved with a movement. We’re not that interested in reaching pensioners who sit at home and watch TV, for example. What we have found is that our audience has shifted over the years, and while we have some hardcore fans, we also have fans that outgrow our content and new fans who are excited to engage with radical ideas.  I think it’s a bit dangerous to try to appeal to a certain group based on metrics in order to get more viewers, because you run the danger of bending or softening your discourse in the name of getting more people, instead of staying true to your “raison d’etre” – ours being to disseminate anarchist and anti-authoritarian ideas and to aid social movements.

Do you have any particular skills or advice to pass on to others starting their own radical media organisations?

Mainly to be consistent, to be true to your ideals, to honor your audience and not short change them, to the make the best fuckin media you can with the resources available to you.

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Follow @subMedia and @stimulator on twitter, and on Facebook: subMedia/Stimulator, and find all their film and video for free at subMedia.tv.

Elizabeth Mizon is a writer, filmmaker and organiser based in Bristol, UK, and recently finished her first feature documentary The Fourth Estate. Follow her @elizabethethird.

All The World’s a Stage: Politics in Mass Media

political media tvAlthough many mass media texts and channels are more overtly political than others, it can be argued that all media is intrinsically political. Each media creator, text and channel chooses a form and method for the tone and representation of its content, and thus defines its political significance; even a renouncing of political position makes clear the creator’s political stance: that they deem politics irrelevant or inappropriate in the given context. With this in mind, the increase of mass media’s reach around the globe has profound implications for the influence of ideas and ideologies that affect our global governance in real terms. It is unsurprising, then, that the debate over whether we shape the media, or whether the media shapes us, rages on – and it is interesting in this context to note the dynamics between media that concerns politics as its primary topic, and media that contains implicit political ideas.

 

Alongside the developments in technology that have allowed mass media to be almost instantly and globally accessible, has been a commoditisation of the vast majority of mass media (i.e. media outlets are run as a business; texts and channels are bought by an owner and sold to a consumer), the implications of which on the political economy of the media are many and significant with regards to the dissemination of political ideas, and the integrity of mass media to function as a tool in favour of the majority. News’ valued objectivity is compromised and a lack of accountability arises when an individual (or small groups of individuals) hold so much power over the communication of ideas throughout the global village. Certain political ideas are favoured, and some are suppressed, depending on the political ideologies of the owners of mass media outlets – not only in news, but in entertainment.

 

Interestingly, as the global reach of mass media has increased, political engagement and awareness has not necessarily been impacted positively. Of late, there have been record lows of voter turnout, a general distrust of the integrity of politicians and the democratic process, and a cynicism around the integrity of political media reporting itself. This has gone hand in hand with huge cuts to the journalism industry and public arts funding bodies that have rendered investigative journalism and media almost non-existent in the mass market, and an increase in 24 hour news media and information on demand that has left fewer workers with far more work than previously.

 

News

Arguably the most significant debates around political news media of late have been the ethical implications of ownership of vast numbers of news outlets by media conglomerates, and the challenge to them by grassroots organizations and social media. On one hand, the news landscape is dominated by corporate news organizations, and on the other many believe sites such as Twitter propose a significant challenge via alternative means (for many, Twitter’s user-generated front end obscures its corporate status.) With the introduction of 24-hour news channels that bring a constant stream of global political news to television and computer screens, and the rise in popularity of the Internet as a news aggregation tool, there is also a dominance of competing information and competition to be the first to break political stories. There is a contradiction in the depth and intensity of these non-stop media feeds, in that while the speed and coverage with which citizens are introduced to political information technically increases, an intensity of competition and insecurity is created that prevents lucidity of information, and attention to a full spectrum of occurrences. Alistair Campbell argued that during his tenure in Blair’s cabinet, this directly increased the perceived need for political spin within the government, for which he was responsible, since the demand for political information from journalists became incessant. As a result of the new political news climate, Campbell and his team would have to go into overdrive, further obscuring any organic insight into Britain’s political workings.

 

The ethical arguments concern the relationships between politicians and media barons, the financial framework of news corporations, and the culture of journalistic methods. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation owns hundreds of news outlets on all continents, ranging from television news channels to magazines to newspapers. The global political influence of what is communicated by his outlets, then, is huge. Murdoch publicly maintains that he dictates no editorial line in his papers, yet he is long reported to have had private business meetings with numerous political leaders, and all but one of his newspapers maintained a pro-war line before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Murdoch is the most well known example of this media monopolisation, but he is simply one example of the people who have created these ethical issues in the contemporary landscape of media ownership.

 

Entertainment

Long commoditised, entertainment media has always had a myopic but inextricable relationship with political content. Mass entertainment media could be said to exist on a spectrum of political engagement, ranging from biting satire at one end to fantastical escapism at the other. Again, it must be noted that all stories, representations, and methods of creation contain political values even, and especially when, they efface overt political discussion or engagement.

 

Mass entertainment media on television, in film, in print and now online most traditionally concerns the individual narrative at its core, with a backdrop of spectacle, comedy, romance, violence, or all of the above, to increase its impact. It has also traditionally been, and continues to be, seen as an escape from ‘reality’ and thus a rejection of engagement in favour of respite, though the moralistic values of self-governance and choice ethics of many individual narratives in fact impart some powerful political messages on unsuspecting audiences. (Indeed, were mass entertainment media not so instructive and meaningful, there may be less mass consumption of it.)

 

Campaigning media

Documentaries are perhaps the most overt, and recently massively popular, form of politically engaged and campaigning media. Since Michael Moore’s overtly political Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) became the highest-grossing documentary of all time, and his previous film Bowling for Columbine (2002) won critical acclaim and wide distribution, political documentaries have been climbing for the same heights of box office success as features. Bowling for Columbine and Alex Gibney’s Inside Job (2010), concerning America’s fatal relationship to gun ownership and the individual perpetrators of the economic crisis of 2008 respectively, were both awarded the Best Documentary Oscar, and grossed millions of dollars. Neither shyed away from confrontation, and while lacking an explicit call to arms for specific political action, they certainly made their values towards these political disasters clear. Backed by large companies in the mainstream film industry, both received global distribution and engaged audiences en masse.

 

Some of these films have affected real political change – since the exhibition of Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish (2013), a feature documentary about the violent behaviour of captured orcas at theme parks such as SeaWorld, stocks in SeaWorld have dropped dramatically and animal-rights campaigners have heavily promoted and employed the film as a tool in their fight for change in the industry. This has been dubbed ‘the Blackfish effect.’

 

That said, many of these documentaries specifically refrain from laying down an explicit political objective or trajectory that they would like to see post-theatre (in fact, Blackfish did not call explicitly, only implicitly, for the closure of or withdrawal of funds from SeaWorld by investors.) Many campaigning films that do designate explicit political objectives highlight the individual choices of the consumer as a way to affect change (see The End of the Line (2009). In this way, many documentaries can be seen as manifestations of the liberal political contexts from which they come, commoditizing their political messages in the same way that they themselves are bought and sold to survive in the industry, rather than arguing for fundamental or radical political change to the crises or abuses with which they are concerned.

 

However, due to the rise of the internet, standardised and portable media equipment, and advanced user-centred technology, many grassroots media organizations have thrived in the climate of peer-to-peer connection that have been afforded them. In particular, film collectives and co-ops can organize to produce various screen media, then distribute and exhibit them through sites such as YouTube and Vimeo at little to no cost. The labour issues involved are still difficult to navigate since film production is highly time-intensive and funding is sparse, so many radical filmmakers who cannot find a voice or recognition within the industry have pursued creative ventures outside of regular paid work (as has been the artists’ tradition).

 

Similarly, the rise of blogging platforms and self-publishing networks, not to mention social media, has allowed for independent journalism by all, and thus mass media can be brought to the masses by the masses. The drawback of this, of course, is that the tools and means of media creation are now so accessible that the volume of mass media content that is available is dense, nebulous and unregulated; being heard amongst the cacophony is increasingly difficult. The surfacing of quality journalism and filmmaking is in constant rotation and whether it will ever become financially sustainable for individual creators is yet to be seen. However, the aesthetic of online media has changed alongside developments, so that a rougher aesthetic will be accepted where it wouldn’t in mainstream mass media industries, if its content touches on a popular or relavant topic, or has a particularly appealing style.

 

New media

Currently, the Internet and the new media associated with it (such as social media networks, user-generated media, creative development tools, online software subscription, media on demand, etc.) is changing at such a rapid rate, it defies definition. What is true at the time of writing is unlikely to remain timely. What is certain is that the future of media, political mass media, and the politics of, and within, the mass media is potentially radically transformative for society. There is vast opportunity in this new technology and culture of media for increased transparency of information, political behaviour, and political organisation, especially in the context of investigative political journalism around the world. Corporations who currently own and control the mass media, who have an interest in disallowing political upheaval and social change, however, also have an opportunity to colonise cyberspace in the same way they have done the traditional mass media industries.

 

The vastness of the current sphere of both traditional vertically-integrated and burgeoning horizontally-integrated mass media perhaps dilutes its political implications. The nebulous nature of human societies across the global village prevents one accessible and agreeable message from touching everyone, even before it is impacted by the dominance of huge media corporations and their relationships to political and financial elites. If we can engage with new media aggressively and purposefully, rather than passively, we might well see a new politics emerge, and soon.

Does social media really encourage political action for Gaza?

social-media-and-politics

Carl Miller of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media asserts that “para-political activity is a potent and growing phenomenon”, and if you’ve ever even glanced at social media, you’ll agree. But, note the use of the prefix para-, and his following assertion: “as politics in front of our eyes seems to be business as usual, an earthquake is rumbling under Westminster.” Is it really the case that the likes of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are galvanising and facilitating a post-postmodern world of political organisation? Will it, or has it already, changed the lives of those who use it to the extent that our future leaders might come to organize and communicate in ways that can’t be racketeered? And in a week in which reports of the Gaza conflict saturate the online mediascape, can it be the case that social media is important and effective enough to in fact make an impact on conflicts like these?

 

The term ‘social media’ (SM) is often a truncation to describe the now omni-accompanying digital platforms via which we chat blithely to tenuous contacts and acquaintances. The phrase is synonymous specifically with Facebook and Twitter, the profile-based platforms from which the majority of SM users broadcast and receive information, and are largely a deluge of faces, frivolity and thrillingly small animals. SM’s much broader network of tools can be underestimated; the term encompasses a vast amount of ‘Web 2.0’, the modern internet in which user-generated content dominates the landscape and the culture of cyberspace’s constant conveyor belt. YouTube, Instagram and Flickr are all social media tools too, as is Wikipedia, and all online blogs. The collective, collaborative potential of this revolution in communications is well utilized in certain arenas, and taken for granted in others, and the focus on SM as simply an individual’s digital ego-hub is often the source of its dismissal. But there are huge implications in its wider applications of creating, obtaining and transmitting events, visual media and discrete information freely and instantaneously. History need not be entirely written by the winners if the underdogs know their tech.

 

With all this potential, is there concrete value in social media as transformative platforms? Is it easy, or even helpful, to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ uses of it (or, in terms of political engagement and activism, ‘effective’ and ‘ineffective’)? Can uploading a photo of your dinner for the umpteenth time ever affect change? What if it’s another inadequate meal supplied by food banks because your parents are out of work, below a link to an article about the rise of the UK’s reliance on them? There are different ways to use SM valuably and effectively, to distribute information, to influence, to make visible, to facilitate understanding. And it seems that social media has the potential to do for awareness of current political crises what television reportage did for awareness of the Vietnam war; then again, the US waged destruction for years in spite of widespread dissent.

 

 

Jane Gaines debated a similar question with regard to documentary film in her essay ‘Political mimesis’ – what is it about political and social documentary film that moves people, and when it does, does it actually galvanise them into action? Does exposure to political argument via visual media encourage praxis? Gaines argues that alongside an emotional reaction, the visual representation of violence, struggle and conflict instigates (as all cinema does) a physical, visceral reaction similar to that of pornography; but to arouse the mind, arms, spirit, rather than genitalia. This stimulation can be felt even in the most terrible Hollywood war epics, but when the emphasis is on ‘real’ events, and ones that are occurring now, this bodily response might incite us to act upon what we now ‘know’ as a result of documentary ‘evidence’. This week, videos from Gaza, news reports and opinion pieces have gone viral across SM – not only do they move us emotionally, but hopefully, then, to act.

 

However, in his column for the New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell famously trashed SM ‘activism’, explaining that the ‘act’ largely ends at the click of a button: “the platforms of social media are built around weak ties. […] There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. […] But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.” Gladwell points out that SM is a participatory, not motivational, tool that lessens the level of motivation that participation requires – by sharing that video of the boy with his face blown off, you’ve done what you can. You’ve distributed the information, perhaps contributed to others’ awareness; what else can you do?

 

How can we determine the value of this kind of activity? On one hand, how exactly can you help victims of atrocity other than by making people aware of their fate? Perhaps you share a few more videos, a few more articles. On the other, it’s clear that the definition of ‘help’ here is barely workable; what the children of Gaza needed was real political change years ago. How cynical can we be about our ability to affect the world? Does anyone know which acts will actually change a situation? Clicking the ‘Like’ button? Retweeting? What is it good for – absolutely nothing?

The Old Carriageworks, Stokes Croft, Bristol, UK - 1st August 2014
The Old Carriageworks, Stokes Croft, Bristol, UK – 1st August 2014

On the other side of the fence is Clay Shirky, who believes that “the fact that barely committed actors cannot click their way to a better world does not mean that committed actors cannot use social media effectively.” While it is true that masses of apathetic, alienated, square-eyed youth in the UK spend vast amounts of time interacting predominantly digitally, their interaction with internet culture and SM can be optimal for an introduction to political awareness, even if not political action, if used with intent. Internet culture, especially ‘geek’ or ‘nerd’ culture, has a strong interest in social justice, and this interest is reflected in SM content and even popular internet culture far more than it is in mainstream popular media. Internet culture is certainly influenced by mainstream culture, but can also act in opposition to it; in order to gain the most out of the power of the horizontally-organised counter cultural cyberspace, you have to want to immerse yourself in learning and acting on your knowledge. The crux of the problem being, therefore, that the majority of our culture and national curriculum distinctly lacks political analysis or awareness in the first place. And it’s not only young people who lack the drive.

 

It’s an ongoing struggle to encourage people to engage, but more and more communities exist online that encourage us to learn, and act. John and Hank Green, using their hit YouTube channel Vlogbrothers and numerous other SM, have created an online culture with a network of users and fans named ‘nerdfighteria’. [Said fans and users (‘nerdfighters’) are self-proclaimed nerds who fight the perennial scourge of worldsuck to increase awesome.] The Project for Awesome (P4A) is a yearly fundraising drive that the Vlogbrothers run via YouTube, encouraging users to upload videos in support of charities, thereby increasing awareness and encouraging their audiences to donate. For 2013’s P4A they also utilised crowdfunding site Indiegogo, raising $721,696, breaking Indiegogo’s record for the most money raised by a campaign. Together with the YouTube efforts the total raised in 2013 was $869,591.

 

Popular comic creators who make the most of their hits through social media such as Cracked and CollegeHumor have also used their presence to bring political issues to their audiences. Increasingly, these mainstream humour sites are distributing videos via SM that discuss issues such as gay rights, women’s rights, and net neutrality, for example. While this makes political tension accessible to people who might otherwise choose not to engage, what comes of the access to these videos? Could we justify creating content about the situation in Gaza for a mainstream comedy audience? CollegeHumor’s YouTube channel has 7.5 million subscribers; Reuters, BBC News and Associated Press have less than 1 million combined, reflecting both a creator and audience focus on lighter topics that can be made funny rather than the most urgent of political crises. This disparity here between passively encountering politics in one’s entertainment media, and engaging with active political organizations who are acting IRL illustrates Gladwell’s point nicely.

 

As far as the dynamic between SM and the mainstream media (MSM) goes, many have hastily hailed SM’s horizontal power structure as a cure-all alternative, while ignoring the complexities of the ever-intensifying relationship between them. Rather than expressing any distaste or worry about SM as a defiance, Martin Niesenholtz of The New York Times notes that SM is “highly complementary to what [they] do”. While SM has the ability to inform where the MSM won’t (rather than can’t), the MSM is also absorbing and incorporating it, and fast. Corporate news isn’t going anywhere quite yet, and until SM provides a direct challenge to it by making itself better organised, it will remain complementary. For example, both CNN and Al Jazeera have established networks of volunteers on the ground in crisis situations to provide news content to them via SM, which is then verified by journalists back at HQ; indeed, Al Jazeera’s network was set up as a direct response to the 08-09 conflict in Gaza. While SM can provide a fighting alternative to the blackouts and corruption we see too frequently from MSM houses, its loose networks suffer from a lack of direction, organisation and verification that provide their own problems. The MSM is quickly learning to pick up that slack while reaping the benefits of horizontally organised groundwork.

 

Former BBC ‘future media’ executive Nic Newman posited that while Twitter has a significantly smaller audience than Facebook, its users are the real “influencers. […] The audience isn’t on Twitter, but the news is on Twitter.” Jeff Jarvis of the City University of New York noted that political conversations and debates are going on already, and journalists need to realize they are simply a part of this wider discourse, and should focus largely on providing context, debunking, and analysis. Channel 4 News seems to have cottoned on to this with regard to Gaza, creating a web video of significant critique from head reporter Jon Snow. In only a week the video has received around 900,000 views, several times that of any other of Channel 4’s videos that have been live far longer. In 5 minutes, Snow details his direct experience, providing visual evidence, critical context and concise analysis of the situation in Gaza, with a focus on the issue of most urgency: the fatal damage to its children. The length, content and style of the video makes it optimal for informing SM grazers about the situation, and is of course shareable across all SM platforms from YouTube. This is a particularly effective and efficient example of the way this collaboration can be used to influence people, engage them with politics, and pass that influence and engagement on. People want to engage, and when the opportunity appears amongst our shiny distractions, most will take that first step.

 

Two other videos concerning Gaza that have stood out for me this week are user-generated, and quite different. One, so vile, spurred me to act. I did not watch it, I saw only the thumbnail image. It shows a boy whose entire jaw is missing, ripped away by a bomb, and entering a hospital – to have what done to repair him, I can’t imagine. Stunned, I could not look away. I dipped my eyes to the comments below. The first one simply read

“guy comes in with no bottom jaw. Doctor spends 40 seconds making sure that he films him.. Riiiiiiiight.”

 

Disturbed by both the image and the blasé, cynical response, I felt sick, powerless; but determined to respond. The following comments were all of shock and disgust, and one admonished the sharer for posting it in the first place. Some questioned its authenticity; all legitimate concerns. How many other people were moved to act, share, write, boycott Israeli goods, pen a letter to the government…I do not know, and I suspect very few. I wish it had never happened; in lieu of that, I will engage with it.

 

The other video was of the previous day’s protests in Brighton and made by a filmmaking colleague, Lee Salter; a short observational reportage-style video in which members of the march were interviewed and the subject analysed. They spoke of boycotting Israel-trading outlets, of why they choose to march, of their frustration at the snails pace of change. The video is titled ‘Gaza to Brighton – things that we can do for Gaza’; one that encourages engagement and sharing, to consider actions such as marching and boycotting, to make noise and demand change, and make visible the people who are enacting this resistance already and how we might join them. It might not feel like much, but it’s often all people feel they can do, disenfranchised and confused as they are.

The Old Carriageworks, Stokes Croft, Bristol, UK - 1st August 2014
The Old Carriageworks, Stokes Croft, Bristol, UK – 1st August 2014

Gladwell makes a damning but noteworthy assertion about the power structures of internet networks, social and political. “Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren’t controlled by a single central authority. Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?” Collective organizations can be successful when they have solid aims. If unions got distracted by putting cats in mugs and making gifs of them, would we be surprised when the strikes never happened? The Internet does not have solid aims, because it represents a vast number of people on the globe, a huge number of the whom are are ill-informed, unhappy, bored and understandably disillusioned. To ensure the productive and effective use of SM by the user, the audience, the masses, we need to understand what it is good for, and what it’s limitations are. Clay Shirky, in part, finds agreement with Gladwell here: “social media tools are not a replacement for real-world action but a way to coordinate it.”

 

The dissemination of information and ideas is only the first step for political engagement. For the majority of SM users, especially the slacktivists who think they’re affecting change by clicking a button, it’s the last. Direct activism and action can be suggested, encouraged and introduced by SM, but nothing will replace work done and demands made on the ground. Unfortunately, radical action (and even democratic action) are silently discouraged by the structure of our lifestyles, our 9 to 5 hours that could be better distributed, our entertainment-saturated landscape, our addictions encouraged by advertising, and illiteracy concerning power. Again, Gladwell denounces SM for making “it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient.”

 

It is easier than ever to type in a keyword about human trafficking, Gaza, environmental degradation and corporate corruption and instantly find reams of articles, twitter accounts and discussion boards providing the networks, connections and information to get started, but the audience needs to be searching in the first place. Education reform, parental guidance, and commitment to engagement in conversation are absolutely essential. Shirky’s assertion that “access to information is far less important, politically, than access to conversation” is astute; we must maintain the conversations and encouragement with each other (IRL) that may make or break our futures.

Moore, Burchill and Those Opposed (aka Taking Offense)

Offended1For anyone not yet acquainted with MooreBurchillTransGate (it’s catchy!), a summary of the offense taken so far reads as follows:

Throughout life, culminating in Nov 2012: Susanne Moore takes offense at the fact that women continue to be patronized, under-represented, reproductively-controlled, hyper-sexualized, sexually assaulted, and are then criticized for being angry about it.

Jan 8th 2013: Moore tweets that the article about the offense she’s taken has been republished in the New Statesman. @Jonanamary tweets in reply that she “was loving” the article until she took offense to it.

Later on Jan 8th 2013: @Jonanamary and Moore tweet increasingly fiercely about the specificities of the offense taken, whilst continuing to offend each other.

Jan 13th 2013: Julie Burchill (friend of Susanne Moore and “Bernard Manning of feminism” – Dr Tim Stanley) takes offense at the offense taken by @Jonanamary and others, and also takes offense to “trannies” (“who are lucky [she’s] not calling them shemales”) offending her friend in response to offense that was taken.

Later on Jan 13th 2013: Everyone takes offense from Burchill.

Jan 14th 2013: I take offense from everyone.

Lordy. Throughout the collision of wills, egos and hurt feelings, relevant and fascinating concerns around free speech; the volatility of politically correct semantics; intersectional feminism; and the apparent futility of trying to conduct and sustain reasonable debate around important issues of equality were served up and backhanded away into obscurity. Livid and appalled as I naturally was at this prejudiced attack on my species’ collective progression, I loaded a random working-class militant journalist’s Twitter feed and filled dialog box upon dialog box with hundreds of characters of blindly reactive hatred, before sheepishly taking a breath, having a sit down and reordering the characters in a word document. I was writing all the right characters, just not necessarily in the right order.

The particular offense I took from the ‘Twitter Storm’ concerned Everybody Involved’s failure to capitalize on the opportunity to attempt to understand their opponents, to ask any pressing questions, to actually discuss anything. Nobody typed more than 280 characters without giving up on what could have been an enlightening, worthy debate. The result was a Pong match of snide implications/explicit statements that the offense-causer could fuck right off, convinced that each instance of talk-to-the-hand one-upmanship had won them the moral high ground.

Unfortunately, at no point did Moore think it appropriate to apologise for making the original un-PC gaffe. Moore’s comment about the “transsexual” body referred (I assume) to the expectation on ‘cis’-women to attain, and retain, standards of surgically enhanced bodily ‘perfection’; a standard reflected, incidentally, by some trans women’s bodies in their oft-surgically-altered appearance. Explicitly transphobic, no (although her latter comments were hugely questionable). Misjudged and semantically incorrect, yes sir (or lady….or….*sweats*).

For the offended, a recognition of this was necessary, and, I reckon, an apology was warranted. No need to lose face, or to lose the intended meaning of the comment, or indeed the article as a whole (a hugely worthwhile read). Just a simple apology to some hurt people, for dropping the semantic ball. After publishing, this is all she could have done to amend, and it’s not asking much. Unfortunately, once Moore had taken counter-offense to @Jonanamary, her ‘give a fuck’ attitude (a la Caitlin Moran’s knee-jerk reaction to questions of racial representation in programming) shut down any potentially rewarding discourse on the complex politics of gender normativity, inclusion/exclusion, solidarity re: equality, etc etc….

Whether or not an apology would have been accepted, we’ll never know. But it likely wouldn’t have mattered anyway: Burchill marched in with an unnecessary input, titled ‘Transsexuals should cut it out’ (as though each and every “trannie” had chosen to be involved in the sulkfest). What followed was the opposite of Moore’s article; perhaps one good point hidden within several yawningly provocative paragraphs of name-calling. I’m not sure it’s worth going into the minutiae of Burchill’s tirade, and subsequent free-for-all; there may yet be more to follow.

Lynne Featherstone MP made the offense taken a government issue, and John Mulholland, editor of the Observer, withdrew Burchill’s article the following day. That was yesterday. And still, no one had said anything remotely intellectually stimulating, except Moore in the first instance. Since yesterday, however, I have found a few considered responses, such as Paris Lees’ open letter to Moore, which developed the discussion with the vigour and candour originally displayed in Moore’s piece. Lees writes a kind, enlightening and exemplary plea to Moore to simply understand the frustration she and others have felt in the face of chronic discrimination…. sound familiar, Suze?

Of course, Twitter’s very public and very limited format led to the unraveling of what should have been quickly amended. Moore was understandably defensive about an emotionally charged, hugely personal piece of work, and people were understandably hurt by her ignorance to pain and anger they know far too well (like yours, Suzanne! See? Let’s all be friends and live in uninterrupted harmony! We’re all the saaaaaaaaame. Kinda.)

I fear that too much has been lost in the unnecessary negativity, but again I hope that considerate responses will be formed…read Moore’s article (I wouldn’t bother with Burchill’s, even if it was still freely available), Lees’ response, and any other articles written in between that focus on the complexity of the issues at hand. In future takings of offense, take a breath, and seek to understand exactly what’s going on. Why wouldn’t you want to form a dignified, genuine response?

To paraphrase* Jay Smooth of the each-and-every-time-worthwhile Ill Doctrine, the fact that we have made such progress towards equality is not a reason to care less about what we say to each other, and how that makes them feel. It’s the reason we should care more.

(*I’m paraphrasing because I can’t find the video in which he says this. A great excuse to go watch some Ill Doctrine right now; let me know if you find it?)