“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”
Thomas Jefferson can’t be blamed for not getting excited by historical materialism, given that he preceded its inception, but an optimism for the future doesn’t require a rejection of the past.
The past is not a static entity. The past can be re-imagined and reinterpreted much as the present can experience the same. The past can teach us new things about itself, the present, and the future. Equally, the present can help us re-understand the past. We can create a knowledge loop where each informs each other.
Even the most modern of concepts can find itself an equivalent in the past. The importance of social networks, the bubbles they create, and the power which they hold, are not new. They have never existed in their current form, but that’s not to say they don’t have structurally similar precursors we can analyse.
In this article I’ll look briefly at what social network comparisons we can draw from the past which can help us understand our present and our future.
New concepts grow in unlikely places
2016 was the year which changed, what Spanish school children are taught as, The Anglo-Saxon World.
Brexit determined a new role for Britain and a new choice of character on the global stage. We haven’t played Hamlet for a while, but we made the decision in June of that year to bow out of Horatio’s shoes and start learning Marcellus’ lines. We’ve still got plenty of face time, we just make less of an impact on the narrative.
America, in similar fashion, went against Dr Suess’ advice and finally, 70 years later, voted America First. Trump’s inauguration received record crowds. Or didn’t. Truth evaporated overnight and it continues to get more ridiculous with every passing month.
I start this article as the evangelicals and paedophiles unite to take on the morally degenerate liberals in Alabama. The idea of a coherent reality of which we are all participants seems laughable in the wake of political partisanship gone mad.
2017 was the year in which we all took stock, even as things continued to crumble around us, to speculate on what changed; what happened to create this mass embrace of self-harming anti-intellectualism? Were we really fed up with experts?
A few years ago, when I spent my evenings pretending to be a teacher, I was amazed to hear that my students were studying Anglo-Saxon history and culture. By Anglo-Saxon they didn’t mean the Germanic settlers which spring to every British mind – the culture who gave us the word “fuck”. The students were studying Victorian Britain through to Thatcher and The Mayflower through to Reagan. Through this lens, the stories of the UK and the US were so tightly intertwined as to be expressions of the same phenomena; the same culture.
I’d always considered the stories of the two nations to be related but the presentation of this new perspective caused me to pause and rethink all my impressions of the two countries. Does the idea even make sense? What about the Spanish or Dutch or German or Swedish or French settlers? Does Britain receive all the imperial credit? How does this concept pair with Tocqueville, Orwell, Baudrillard, or other treatise on America and its self-declared exceptionalism?
Sometimes a perspective jumps out at you and makes you re-imagine the stories and narratives you feel you knew.
The social network is geist manifest
The 2017 analysis of the election results, Captain Corbyn’s Colossal Comeback included, has nailed home – finally – the political importance of what feels to be a truly modern concept.
Understanding the world through the lens of the Social allows us to see the cogs in human interaction all across society. What philosophers like Hegel would describe as the geist or weltgeist – the spirit of the world – are now better known as Twitter or Facebook. The spirit of the social age allows us, through these platforms, to watch society and all its machinations in real time rather than to speculate on the feelings and thoughts of others around us.
We talk in terms of social media, social reach, and social virality to an extent now that it’s hard to picture a past where we didn’t. In a practical sense, social media acts as a sort of democratised mass media. It can be gamed, but it needs active interaction to flourish not simply the passive interaction of buying a newspaper. In the new world of social media you need to buy the newspaper and then photocopy it and hand it out all over again to twenty friends.
The perspective of the Social and the importance of the personal networks we create has been illuminated by this recent decade, the last five years even moreso. Social networks have gone from fun means of procrastination to political battlegrounds and professional exhibitions. (When you’ve read this, please add me to your professional network on LinkedIn.)
The trial of the century is already underway as Robert Mueller and his crack legal team investigate the campaign of 45 and their possible collusion with an external state. The fear that Russian hackers swayed the election is not limited to the US; Carole Cadwalladr leads the journalistic charge at the Brexit campaign with similar accusatory statements.
However, the Russian involvement in the Brexit campaign strategy isn’t comparable to hacking into the DNC. Sledgehammers through walls of code. The manipulation claims foisted on Russia come down to teams of Russian communicators socially engineering democracy while sat behind fake social media accounts building and consolidating networks of loyal followers.
Instead of a war of guns or espionage, it’s a war for the public social space.
It fits into a broader analysis of what Philip Howard calls computational propaganda – a fusion of propaganda and marketing driven by data and reinforced by the resources to leverage that data.
Our social spaces are now talked about as networks within networks, with no one node being so above the others.
Social shifts can create these new concepts, and in doing so they can illuminate things which came before them which were, until now, hidden. The idea that the Social is suddenly a new force in the political sphere, I contend, is wrong. There is nothing new about the Social. It just needs the right conditions to flourish.
Darts and discos, debate and discourse
In London in 1862 the reverend Henry Solly founded the overarching union of Working Men’s Clubs (CIU). These were collectively owned and democratically run social spaces. They were community centres with bars attached. We’re often guilty now of thinking of Working Men’s Clubs as being gloomy spaces where old men drink slowly round inactive snooker tables, but they weren’t always this way.
For many men around the turn of the century, these clubs were their primary source of education – both academically and politically. Texts like the Communist Manifesto, or later The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, would be staples of education and understanding of political dynamics. That’s not to say everyone was a radical, but these localised networks were overwhelmingly socialist up until WWII, and, to a lesser extent, the decades directly following.
Many Working Men’s Clubs demonstrated a reflection of the misogynistic society in which they emerged and only allowed men to be full members. Women often utilized the spaces and organised a great deal of the more social community oriented events, yet the old trends remained. As such, when we see the membership peak of 7 million CIU affiliated members, what we really have is a figure closer to 15 million people in the country who had a connection with Working Men’s Clubs. Men, women, kids, and all of them again — but for non CIU-affiliated clubs.
The Working Men’s Clubs movement held a large sway over the nation – even if that sway wasn’t appreciated at the time.
When people look to the Labour victory of 1945, or all the smaller victories along the way which created the potential for that victory, there are normally two main themes people focus on. The first is The Labour Party as a political arm of the labour movement. The second is the role of the unions as the workplace representation of the labour movement.
These two forces both had centralised structures, funds, and public figures who held significant political capital.
Yet this analysis ignores the fact that this organising was, in many ways, based on the daily social interactions between equal members of democratically run workers’ spaces. In their own small ways each day these members were living socialism and interacting with others who held largely the same premises to be true. The feedback loops we talk about now in regards to social networks were as present then – maybe more present. Every evening stepping into this space to drink, laugh, discuss ideas, organise, and construct identity.
Small networks have succeeded before
The phenomena we describe when analysing online communities share many structural similarities to these small but connected localised networks. The modern language of the Social can create a lens we can use to look at past behaviour with new eyes.
To reinterpret and reunderstand the conditions and interactions which were previously forgotten and lost to history.
In that period from the beginning of the 20th Century to the post-war Labour government, working class social networks – of a physical rather than digital variety – were the foundations the labour movement were built on.
Today isn’t the first time the Social has been the dominant player within the Political. Last time gave us the NHS, the welfare state, and a housing program which intended to give homes to those who once had slums.
The labour movement delivered the largest increase in working class quality of life humanity has ever witnessed. Let this rereading of the past be the glint of optimism you need next time you look at Donald Trump’s Twitter account.