Last Thursday saw the launch of Paulo Gerbaudo’s new book, Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism (Pluto, 2012) as part of the Metamorphoses: transformations and conversions in the Arts & Humanities festival held by Kings College London. The three-strong panel was made up of KCL’s Dr Tim Jordan, Acting Head of Department Culture Media and Creative Industries; Joss Hands, academic and author of @ is for Activism (Pluto, 2010); and Gerbaudo himself. After a welcome by Jordan, Gerbaudo started off by introducing the book which was then critiqued by Hands, before answering questions from the audience.
About the book
Tahrir Square, the Spanish Indignados and Occupy Wall Street are three key political movements of 2011 that Gerbaudo has brought together in his fascinating study of the mobilising potential of social media. Highlighting the tendency of writing on new media to become anchorless and abstract, Gerbaudo was quick to announce that the key factor within his research for the book was the use of interviews: face to face, concrete, embodied exchanges. The importance of physical space and place is a theme that runs through the book (Gerbaudo visited Cairo, Madrid and the US as part of his research) and aims to counter the ‘everywhere but nowhere’ logic of the online world. Indeed, part of what the book does is forge a new place for itself between the apologist and celebratory dichotomy currently characterising the majority of criticism on social media. The book’s grounding in the everyday, concrete uses of technology allows Gerbaudo to reject both poles of opposition and straddle a middle ground, where the symbolic resonance of place and ideas of ‘liquid’ or ‘soft’ leadership have a strong influence.
While clearly drawing on Bauman and Laclau, the book remains accessible – a ‘readable package’ as described by Hands – perhaps an indirect acknowledgement of the theoretical complexity of his own book. Hands also praised the ambitiousness of Gerbaudo’s attempt to examine the three case studies comparatively so soon after they occurred, and challenge the myths surrounding these extraordinary events.
All in all, the warning ending the discussion was that social media, despite its isolating tendencies, is not an isolated space severed from materiality. Concrete consequences literally bring back down to earth those drifting around in the depthless plenitude of cyberspace; emotional structures of feeling generated by social media can transform passive click-tivism into the politically salient, embodied response of the Occupy movements. It is this emotional and transformative dimension of social media that, for Gerbaudo, most crucially deserves our critical attention.
The night finished off, as most in academia do, with cursory drinks and debate, both of which were enjoyed in excess. While confusion over when the launch was to start meant that the questions at the end were quite hurried, Gerbaudo was keen to engage with everybody afterwards in the more informal setting of Chapters, where words flowed freely…. and so did the wine.
Don’t worry if you weren’t able to make it along this time – we thought the book was so good that it deserved two launches, and the next one is due to be held on Tuesday 20th November at Goldsmiths College.