Thursday, April 05, 2012

Stupid is as stupid does!

The savvy politician learns to play the art of the tweet like a fine violin right Mr. Gump?
Social media are the politician's burden
Yes being on Twitter means being subjected to today's knee-jerk online mob rule writes Andrew Keen. For a public figure, that's life
By Andrew Keen/Wednesday, April 4, 2012
When Charlie Angus, the NDP MP for Timmins-James Bay, publicly quit Twitter last week, he bade farewell to his 4,000 followers with the cathartic glee of a believer at the pearly gates. "Dear twitter - adios," his final tweet said, "Free at last. Free at last. Great God almighty free at last."

But why, as more and more politicians are embracing the increasingly ubiquitous 140-character short-messaging network, did the very visible Angus quit Twitter with such fanfare? In the radically transparent spirit of our confessional digital age, the writer, musician and community activist published his full letter of resignation on the Huffington Post, the online network best known for the often selfpromotional writing of celebrities like Angus. And the irony of this resignation letter is that it's made up of a string of brilliantly devastating tweets about Twitter itself:

"It's a technology tailor made for the knee jerk reaction." (59 characters)
"It is a technology that favours the flash mob." (49 characters)
"Being on Twitter is like being badgered by a drunk on a 24-hour bus ride." (76 characters)
"Politicians are slaves to Twitter." (36 characters)

Angus's observations are all true, of course, particularly his argument about Twitter's moblike nature. But Twitter, rather than the cause of today's online ochlocracy, is as much a reflection of the way in which 20thcentury representative democracy is being replaced by the Internet's real-time, always-on plebiscitary democracy.

Unfortunately, we are living in an age that not only "favours" but also increasingly makes the flash mob the central actor in our political life. From the 86 million teenagers who overnight transformed the "Kony2012" YouTube video into a global political issue to the current lynch mob seeking revenge for the "murder" of Trayvon Martin, politics in this digital age is being Disneyfied into a tweetby-tweet and update-by-update Manichaean struggle between good and evil.

Collective memory, a central edifice of a viable political democracy, is another of the tragic casualties of our Twitter and Facebook age. Much has been rightly made of the Orwellian nature of these collective social media networks, with their erosion of privacy and solitude and their inability to forget our intimate data. But the real-time nature of social media, with subjects "trending" every few seconds, also means that our political culture is increasingly suffering from an amnesia that stops us remembering anything of any significance.

The Internet hasn't learned how to forget but it can't remember anything, either.

Equally disturbing, in this culture of "knee-jerk reaction," is that political opinion is increasingly polarized with blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter handles representing an echo-chamber, the "filter bubble," for what we already think is true. The crisis of old media, particularly of newspapers, of course only compounds this trend, with fewer and fewer publications offering complex, nuanced interpretations of complex, nuanced issues.

And yet, in the spirit of nuance and complexity, I can't really support Charlie Angus's decision to shut down his Twitter account. "Being free of the Twitter feed feels like I have got a small part of my life back," Angus con-fessed at the end of his Huffington Post piece.

Yes, perhaps. But if Angus really wanted to own his life, he shouldn't have gone into politics in the first place.

And today, at the beginning of the digital 21st century, politics is increasingly an online spectacle, with every major issue - from Joseph Kony and Trayvon Martin to the 2012 "social media" presidential election in the U.S. - being fought through updates, tweets, online video campaigns and blogs.

The funny thing about Angus is that, in spite of his noisily indulgent retirement, he was never much of a Twitter player. His 4,000 followers are minuscule compared with many leading cultural and political figures on Twitter. And, unlike Angus, many of them are slowly learning the new digital language of 21st-century political life.

That new language is centred on the increasingly intimate and informal relationships between politicians and their electorate in the Twitter and Facebook age. For better or worse, politicians can no longer hide from citizens in the cosseted security of their parliaments. Nor can they take for granted the often unthinking deference with which they were regarded by the electorate in the 20th century.

So, yes, Charlie Angus is right. "Being on Twitter is like being badgered by a drunk on a 24-hour bus ride."

But that, I'm afraid, is the burden that goes with being a 21st-century politician. And as 20th-century representative democracy is replaced by today's direct online democracy, we need responsibly progressive politicians who can help make this historic transition as painless as possible. So here's my tweet back to Angus:

"Yes, today, politicians might be slaves to Twitter; but your job is to make Twitter slaves to politicians." (108 characters).

Andrew Keen (@ajkeen on Twitter) is the author of the upcoming book, Digital Vertigo: How Today's Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us.


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