23 November 2012

The unauthorised voice

I have a right to be heard and so do you. This is a democracy and you have the right to have your voice heard. Having your voice listened to is quite another matter. Political parties used to provide a vehicle for aggregating the voices of (reasonably) like-minded citizens. Paula Matthewson unwittingly identifies another reason for party membership to dry up in terms of numbers and ideas: the rise of a professional political class, of which she is a member, trumping genuine community activism and replacing it with synthetic polls and cynical astroturfing.

Even the most deeply felt, widely held and well-researched ideas on policy were quietly strangled by the likes of Grahame Morris and Bruce Hawker, with their half-baked soundings of talkback radio. Matthewson makes sweeping assertions about a technology where preferences are shaped by the user: she reveals a lot about her preferences and less about Twitter itself. Her "echo chamber" thing is pretty funny when you consider she blocked me for offering different views to hers.

Matthewson ignores the similarities between talkback and Twitter to the detriment of her argument. Outrage over introspection? Yep. Toward the end of her piece her argument runs away with itself, not unlike the very Twitter memes she criticises:
What did Twitter actually do to find Jill Meagher? The same as it did to stop Kony: not much other than generate a lot of clicks. It has subsequently done nothing to make the streets safer at night, and some elements of Twitter have even campaigned against expansion of the CCTV system that ultimately helped to locate the missing journalist.
This would invite satire ("Twitter killed my dog! Twitter ate my lunch! Twitter made my girlfriend drop me for another man!") were it not for the core fact someone has died, and that Matthewson dismissed the event in an attempt to get at social media.

Social media (of which Twitter is one aspect) ensured that Jill Meagher was not just another missing-person statistic. Her disappearance heightened awareness of violence in the area where she went missing, an area where such events were rife. Reported acts of violence have declined despite Matthewson's idle claims to the contrary. As to "some elements of Twitter" (by this she means "some individuals") disagreeing with others? Well, you never get that on rigidly moderated talkback radio, or in the so-called "message discipline" of the politico-media environment in which she operates, so imagine her surprise.
What did Twitter do to make Alan Jones stop being disrespectful to the Prime Minister and other women? Other than provide a rallying point for people to voice their displeasure and threaten consumer boycotts, Twitter did nothing to change Jones' chauvinism, or discredit it in the eyes of his audience.
What did you expect: develop an app that would clap a hand over his gob and say to him "I know what you're about to say, so don't cost yourself and your station millions of dollars and shut your trap"?

Social media didn't just threaten Jones, the warning shots went straight to his hip-pocket nerve: Matthewson either knows this or wasn't paying attention. She has, curiously, paid much greater attention to talkback radio than to Twitter, a sign of confusion among a political class with little feeling for those they purport to govern.
Admittedly, Twitter did rally to protect whistleblower Peter Fox from attempts to demolish his reputation.
Some "elements" did, the better ones.

She doesn't really believe that because it doesn't fit her overall argument. She did it because of this strong and clever piece of journalism, bringing together a range of known facts to make a case that challenges what we thought we knew. Matthewson's piece flinches before and slides around the points made by Smith, but the real audience for it is not you or me but the new editor of The Drum, Chip Rolley.

Rolley is not going to publish the work of an irregular contributor unless it is anodyne and does not ruffle the feathers of in-house ABC people to the point where it becomes difficult for him to hold his own at staff drinks functions, thanks very much. His current post is but another rung on a ladder of all-care-no-responsibility schmoozing roles, like Leo Schofield without taste or wit, and he won't have much truck with Unauthorised Voices - even if the future of his industry depended on it. He'll notice you when you walk through his "open door" and schmooze him, just as if he were editor of The Australian Women's Weekly or Quadrant or Today Tonight.

There have been calls for a Royal Commission into institutional child abuse for decades. Those calls are no less urgent for Matthewson and Rolley ignoring them, for the sheer affrontery of their being Unauthorised (those who protect the perpetrators don't want for Authority, as well as public and covert influence). History will discredit John Howard for not calling one in 2003 after the disgrace of Governor-General Hollingworth, no matter what Matthewson might say about "Howard Haters". Social media brought it forward and imposed the idea onto both a government and an opposition that had other priorities, and which were both disinclined to co-operate with the other. Neither talkback radio or GetUp can claim credit for that.

What is "the Twitter collective" of which she writes? Once you realise the very idea is bogus, and that her echo chamber (and Rolley's) must be yours too, her argument becomes so frail that it only works for those with no actual experience of Twitter or other forms of social media.

She could have at least had the good grace to point out that the founder of GetUp is moving on to old-school political activism of running for parliament. If the Greens do win a Senate seat in the ACT it will almost certainly be at the expense of Liberal Senator Gary Humphries, whose re-election is complicated by Abbott's promise to sack 12,000 to 20,000 public servants.
Effective campaigns deliver votes, change minds or influence behaviour. When Twitter starts producing these types of outcomes it will be making a real difference. And that's when we'll be able to tweet "Thanks Twitter!" without it being the ultimate act of self-parody.
Depends who you mean by "we", really, and to whom the votes are delivered. Twitter people are well-informed people, while old-school politico-media types tend to be about the fudge and the spin. Matthewson's piece reminds me of similar efforts from between the World Wars, where opinionistas mocked the early sputtering days of horseless carriages by comparison with the noble steed. The failure of imagination to the point of please-ambush-me vulnerability is hilarious, all the more so for being unintended.

Social media allows for the proliferation of Unauthorised Voices. Political professionals disdain social media but the smarter ones keep an eye on it. Once social media starts jamming the gears of some big wheels, the smarter ones like Matthewson will present themselves as having power over these media - Matthewson has a high Klout score, a blog and a strong Twitter presence. The mockery is appropriate to some fuddy-duddy who disdains what they do not know, but you can't be that engaged without knowing the disconnect between the front presented to Drum readers and the deft handling across various platforms in pursuit of issues important to her.

With pieces like this, Matthewson illustrates a let-them-eat-cake disconnect by the political class with those who pay taxes and are subject to the regulations for which she lobbies. Focus groups or polling can be more or less illustrative, but cannot really help advocates of narrow interests to appreciate more general, longer term interests.

1 comment:

  1. FWIW, Simon Sheikh was National Director of GetUp from about 2009 until July 2012 - he wasn't its founder. "GetUp was founded in 2005 by Jeremy Heimans and David Madden" (http://www.getup.org.au/about/faq)