EXCLUSIVE: Facebook Contains People

Just read this piece on Comment is Free. I thought I would write about it, because it seems like a particularly obvious example of the arse-about-face school of opinion writing. So here are some quotes:

What constitutes a campaign in 2007? A supposed consumer backlash has begun against the makers of Kettle Chips, who have brought in American union-busters to prevent unionisation at their factories. The Guardian reported on October 9 that:

”Two groups, “Boycott Kettle Crisps for attacks on workers” and “Boycott Kettle Crisps: the Anti-Trade Union snack”, have been formed on the popular website Facebook.com.

”They have attracted 130 members, many of whom say they are pledged to persuade friends and family not to buy the product.”

In August, another report claimed “victory” for a 4,000-strong group of students who had forced HSBC to back down on overdraft fees, also via a Facebook group.

To put the 130 in perspective, as of 17:00 on the day of the Kettle Chips story, 253 people were members of the Facebook group “Kettle Chips are just a superior type of crisp” – one of several dedicated to extolling the virtues of the Kettle Chip – against 181 and 185 in the two mentioned in the Guardian report. Moving off the potato snack theme, 575 people had joined “I Hate Razorlight and Want the World to Know” and a frightening 155,287 were members of “Jeremy Clarkson Should Be Prime Minister”.

Er… yup. OK. And if each of these groups had the same kind of purpose, then that might be a point worth making. But you know what? Facebook is a sub-branch of that medium of communication known as teh Internets. It facilitiates people building for themselves an online personality profile which they can use to express themselves to people. Joining groups of similarly minded people is part of how you do that. And the level of seriousness or otherwise of the groups you join says as much about you as the specifics of those groups.

The point is, if the way that the student campaign against HSBC worked was through Facebook, then there is nothing wrong with reporting that. Indeed, when “Jeremy Clarkson Should Be Prime Minister” achieves a similar level of success in its own campaigning (god forbid), then I am sure it will be reported in equal terms. But I am pretty certain it won’t, and let me tell you why: “Jeremy Clarkson Should Be Prime Minister” is not in fact a serious, motivated campaign group with focussed objectives and a realistic plan for achieving them. I know this may come as a bit of a shock to some people, but in fact, arguments that try to decry a medium using some of the things that some people try to communicate with them (even most people) are almost always HORSESHIT FROM START TO FINISH. Like this:

Facebook is not yet a medium for informed debate: by and large the groups are remarkably badly informed, populated through whimsy or a desire to make a superficial statement. It is the Gen-Y equivalent of wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt, but without even the capital expenditure. Most users join because their mates invite everyone they know to join whatever the group du jour is, usually the one with the most amusing name.

This is not in any way a substitute for political action, and it is rarely, if ever, translated into real-world effects.

I mean, lets run that one again, but removing the feeble attempt to pin the actions of people using Facebook onto Facebook itself:

People are not yet capable of informed debate: by and large they are remarkably badly informed, making statements motivated by whimsy or a desire to make a superficial statement. They wear Che Guevara T-shirts. Most conversations are simply held with their mates, and most people probably go along with whoever makes the funniest statements.

This is not in any way a substitute for political action, and it is rarely, if ever, translated into real-world effects.

Stripped of its layer of false analysis of Facebook itself, we can now see two things pretty clearly: 1) This is, to some extent, a true picture of many people, and a very depressing one to the more politically engaged. 2) It has absolutely bog all to do with Facebook. As the author comes close to recognising (in his comparison of the people who join some of these groups to people who wear Che Guevara t-shirts) this is not a fundamental problem with Facebook, any more than it is a problem with t-shirts. This is about people expressing themselves, and feeling disappointed in what they choose to express. Except no opinion writer could possibly write that, because it would be (rightly) decried as patronising.

Thankfully. Close to half a million people are apparently part of a global movement for physical assaults on irritating pedestrians as part of the “I Secretly Want To Punch Slow Walking People In The Back Of The Head” group (define “secretly”!).

Secretly: Privately, inwardly, not openly.

As in these people are just having a laugh, they are not in fact “part of a global movement for physical assaults on irritating pedestrians”, you complete pillock. I know that may seem like a petty thing to take issue with, but it is symptomatic of an inability to see that Facebook can be used to have many different kinds of conversation, or interaction in a wider sense.

Worse still, a smaller, if significant number of people, just over 55,000, want to take it further, supporting capital punishment, albeit only for “chavs who play music off [sic] their phones in public”.

Rinse and repeat as necessary. Except that here, he inserts a smug little “sic” where there is no obvious need for one. The sentence quoted communicates perfectly well what it is trying to say.

But the almost total inability of the media to objectively consider the statistics before declaring a Facebook group “a movement” is a more worrying trend. At best, it is simple laziness – an easy, stop-gap example of consumer disaffection that can be plugged into any story.

There seems to be some projection going on here; this bit could equally be rewritten about the author of this piece:

But the almost total inability of the media to objectively consider new communication media before judging their worth as “a movement” is a more worrying trend. At best, it is simple laziness – an easy, stop-gap example of a story that can be plugged into any new medium (and has been, ever since, at the very latest, the novel arrived as a literary force).

Now, in the interest of balance, I should quote the following, which is perfectly true and a valid comment:

Bad reporting, perhaps, as a simple number on Facebook cannot be said to be in any way statistically rigorous. Of the quoted numbers, not all are even necessarily supportive of the “motion”, because it is not uncommon for users to join in order to attempt to put up some counter-argument (though, since bloggers’ law applies, they are, of course, shouted down). There is no tally of how many people rejected or ignored invitations to join the group, and even if there were, there is likely to be significant sample bias … you generally only invite like-minded people.

He had to go and get that dig in at blogging, though, didn’t he?! Betraying as he did so a view of blogging that has more to do with the comment conversation that takes place on a handful of behemoth blogs like CiF itself and Huffington Post than on the vast majority of blogs as actual bloggers would understand the term.

At worst, this becomes a case of media misrepresentation, a written noddy shot. By blowing out of proportion events in a social network not readily understood by most of their reading demographic, reporters risk creating a campaign where there was none. HSBC may have claimed to be listening principally to its young customers (though, we are unable to tell how many of the 4,000 banked with HSBC), it could easily be suggested that it was the headline coverage that really forced their hand.

Quite so, but then, would there have been a headline if there wasn’t a Facebook group? Like all lobbying, protesting or otherwise manipulating the democratic process and media, it doesn’t quite work the way it might ideally. I imagine in many cases, the reporters not only “risk” creating a campaign where there was none, they actively hope to do so. This has always happened, and I imagine the founders of the groups are often all too happy to have them reported. Certainly, if the reporter who wrote up the Kettle Chips story looked at it when it had only 180 members or so, then they were probably invited by someone pretty close to its originator. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just the Facebook way of sending out a press release.

Internet gossip (and that is what, by-and-large, Facebook groups are) works on an odd system of correlations between sites and ideas, on self-reference and self-promotion, and its trends are caused by snowball effects that act as a distorting mirror for the real world – perhaps concurrent, but by no means accurately portrayed. Draw your own parallels with Cameronite politics.

Oh I see, this is some sort of clever comment on Cameronite politics, is it? Well, no it isn’t.

But that aside, this is an alright ending. The point he’s missing, though, is that it is a legitimate role for journalists to report on those bits of Facebook that aren’t Internet gossip. After all, if they are only “by and large” gossip, then there are, by definition, bits that aren’t.

As for “an odd system of correlations between sites and ideas, [working] on self-reference and self-promotion, … its trends … caused by snowball effects that act as a distorting mirror for the real world – perhaps concurrent, but by no means accurately portrayed”, well, you could have fooled me that he was talking about politics and the media in general there.

I know it is human nature, it would seem, to attack any new medium for the messages that are communicated using it. It happens when people say the internet is full of porn, or that computer games are brainless and violent, or that TV rots the mind, or that the papers are full of lies, or that novels are sensationalist nonsense for young ladies (thankfully we haven’t heard that one in a while). People just need to get a bit better at spotting this sort of thing. If we don’t start distinguishing medium from message, then some really stupid things might start happening.

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