Netroots UK took place yesterday, at the Trade Union Congress head office on Great Russell Street, London, in the heart of Bloomsbury. You’d probably get more thorough news reports on the event elsewhere. If there is one thing techies and activists value most apart from skills, it is knowledge transfer, and this event – like its American counterpart, Netroot Nation – aimed to do just that.
US and UK activists swapped knowledge, wisdom and digital tactics through anecdotes and presentations. Trade unionists and NGOs exchanged ideas on offline and online strategies. Obama campaigners came over to share some tips. It’s a transatlantic cultural exchange that we’d much prefer.
A chance encounter in the loo
I bumped into Polly Toynbee from The Guardian in the lavatory, during the morning coffee break after the opening session. Like many progressives and liberals, I disagreed with some of the things she wrote about. I am secular, but I would still give allowance for “religion” – which I call magic, to the chagrin of my anthropology course mates – and I believe anyone is entitled to his magic and superstition. Why not? As long as you don’t harm people. Ms Toynbee, however, says rather extreme things about quite a few religions – or “thought processes”, as our Anthropology and Techniques lecturer Ludovic Coupaye suggested to me – and is unyielding in her views. And she supports Labour.
But she is consistent in her views: you know where you stand with her. So in the ladies, I said to her: “Ms Toynbee, thank you for standing up with the UCL students at the Top Shop demo”, in reference to the UCL protest at that flagship store last semester. “The UCL students were very good to me,” she said. She looked at my hoodie jumper and remarked: “You’re a UCL student”. “Yeah.” We shook hands. “I’m sorry they have to cart you out of the store, and that it was caught on camera,” I said. She mumbled something like it didn’t really bother her, smiled rather shyly and walked out.
For the sake of The Review, first, I’ll just talk about the things that would appeal to Digital Anthropology, namely the afternoon workshop on hyperlocal activism, and that talk about Fox News by Ari Rabin-Havt from Media Matters From America.
Digital medium as a neutral ground
The workshop “Engaging on a hyper-local level online”, like I mentioned in my tweet, was a Digital Anthropology gold mine. I have been reading up on the use of digital communications for neighbourhood watch for months, and suddenly, I got to learn about credible case studies that are happening now. At this session.
On the panel were Luke Bozier, Managing Director, MyCllr.com; Claire Spencer, Chamberlain Forum; Paul Dimoldenberg, Labour Group, Westminster City Council, and Nick Micinski, Migrant & Refugee Communities Forum. The session was moderated by Anthony Langan.
Bozier endorsed the use of WordPress, among other applications, to get hyperlocal activism off the ground online. We are grateful for his tips on plug-ins, which we will use, of course.
What really perked my interest was the discussion on security, trust and the digital medium as a neutral space. It started off with Paul Dimoldenberg talking about interacting with his constituents using emails. Claire Spencer said something about people only using a medium that they think is “for them” – otherwise they will not – which explains why emails are very effective at hyperlocal community level, although they are not as sophisticated as, say, Facebook. And then Bozier said: “I would not put my neighbours as my Facebook friends.” Fair enough. I wouldn’t, either.
Nick Micinski, who runs the Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum, gave an impressive talk about the ‘neutrality’ of emails and mobile phones as ‘social space’ for communities living in an “aggressive environment”. The centre he works for, apparently, is right next to my former polytechnic, Kensington and Chelsea College. Interesting. You go to University College London to study anthropology, only for life to take you back to your humble polytechnic.
Fox News. A cultural import we do not need
Another talk that left an impression on me was one by Ari Rabin-Havt from Media Matters From America, who spoke about “the Fox effect” and “Glenn Beck”.
Earlier, there was a mention in one of the morning talks about the new media “neutralising” the ideology championed by the mainstream media.
I don’t have a TV for a start, and I find it hard to believe that any person with a brain would buy Glenn Beck’s ‘travelling salesman selling medicine off the back of a wagon’ showmanship. Below is Media Matter’s YouTube video,”Why are so many media conservatives obsessed with rape?“. After seeing that, why would you take people like that seriously?
During the talk, some of people in the audience even laughed when Rabin-Havt played video clips of Beck spewing his right-wing rhetorics (“Nazis and socialists are the same people”). The BBC marketer sitting next to me stared at the screen with disbelief. My jaw dropped. Beck’s delivery is unintelligent. Rabin-Havt then highlighted a murder case – a shooting – inspired by Beck. Some of us went: ‘Nah, that kind of rhetoric inspired a shooting?’. United States is gun-crazy anyway. How can Beck have that influence? A member of the audience even responded to Rabin-Havt that Beck’s style would not wash with the locals here.
Barely an hour later, news about the Arizona shootings which claimed the lives of several people including that of a US Federal Judge, and also wounding Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, spread via tweets, just as Netroots UK was winding down. When I got home, I checked The New York Times website. Rabin-Havt was not kidding. The UK progressives see the Palins and the Becks and the Bushes as comical figures, and they underestimate how influential these people are. These people don’t appeal to intellects or intelligence, and so far, it works. What lesson can we learn from this?
The American progressives got cracking on digital activism way before their UK counterparts did. They had to.