Politics, Distraction and the Digital Inferno

Photograph: Pexels
Photograph: Pexels

Every year for the past eight years I’ve spent August at the Edinburgh Fringe, seeing shows and writing a few reviews. As founder and editor of FringeReview I have had the opportunity to observe at first hand the changing nature of marketing at the Fringe. Edinburgh’s famous Royal Mile is still packed each day with thousands of hopeful artists handing out paper leaflets – the famous ‘flyers’ – in the hope of gaining an audience for their production.

In parallel, the rise of social media has led to Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, Pinterest boards, Linkedin groups to name but the most famous (or infamous) ones.

Digital marketing at the Fringe has proved a mixed blessing. As companies have created Facebook event pages only to discover that most of the people who claimed they were ‘going’ to their show, not only didn’t show up, but weren’t even within a thousand miles of the venue,  – I call this Facebook (Non)Commitment – many have turned back to the streets to drum up a few ticket sales. Social media has proved powerful for committing to other people’s intentions (a like or a thumbs up for our dreams and goals) but not necessarily translating that good will into the physical act of committing to physical presence (posteriors on seats). Facebook can be as fleeting as it is flowing.

Commitment online has tended to prove itself as more effective when those commitments are delivered in small chunks, mostly mediated by the fingertips. Hence the huge success many theatre companies have experienced in getting those very productions to Edinburgh via crowdfunding. It seems that social media is better at the Fringe for creating awareness and for micro-acts of commitment that do not involve leaving our bed or our chair. But we are in great danger if we rely on it to generate the movement of physical feet towards our tiny studio space on Nicolson Street.

Now, is that true in all other fields of human activity? Is it true that the huge turnout at the Scottish referendum vote has achieved partly through a combination of grassroots, house-to-house, town-centre, face to face dialogue AND smart and intense use of social media? Did social media effort actually get people out to vote who wouldn’t have voted before? And did it sway those votes?

Certainly the final week of campaigning by both sides was all over social media, especially Twitter. Twitter became a real-time reporting channel for the latest shenanigans of both Yes and No camps and often ran ahead of TV coverage. Some activists used a blend of social media and face to face campaigning. Social researcher Dr Tom Emery suggests that the Yes campaign was driven through social media.  Some even refer to there having been a social media battle which was won by the Yes camp. Even the BBC referred to winners and losers of the ‘social referendum.’

Social media clearly influenced the vote and perhaps was partly responsible for the huge swing towards yes. But did it actually get people out to vote? There’s less evidence for that than evidence for its influence over public opinion.

At the Edinburgh Fringe, heavyweight (meaning a lot of followers and ‘clout’) tweeters can definitely affect ticket sales. A recommendation from the Guardian’s Lyn Gardner can turn around a show’s fortunes. That is because of an effect known as the ‘tipping point.’ On Twitter ten thousand followers are more likely to yield several hundred with followers of their own ‘retweeting’ a show recommendation from someone with huge social media influence. The multiplier effect ensures that enough people are influenced who then actually commit to buying a ticket for a show. It certainly seems that a similar tipping point was reached in the referendum. Social media had tangible physical world impact.

In my book, Digital Inferno, I explore the idea of ‘digital distraction’, where activities such as social media simply take us away from what we could be doing more effectively elsewhere, especially in the more visceral world of face-to-face interaction. We get digitally distracted at the Edinburgh Fringe when we spend hours tending our Facebook event page, instead of getting out on the streets and talking to people, giving them flyers and persuading them to come to our show. We get fifty likes on our Facebook event page and not one turns into a ticket sale. In contrast, a couple of hours hard graft on the streets leads to ten ticket sales.

Digital distraction steals time from us that is better spent in the physical world. And getting the balance right is going to be a new and vital skill in political and social change. The sheer noise of the digital realm, the constant updating and going out of date of almost real-time information, as well as the need to gain attention from ‘followers’ means that there is an on-going battle for attention, for audience. And without significant numbers, our voice simply isn’t heard and, even when it is, it fails to influence. In the social media world you often have to scream to be heard at normal voice level. Most people’s screams online don’t even make whisper level.

Can there be physical distraction? Some people I’ve spoken to in researching my book suggest yes. When we do have ‘clout’, when our best impact can be made through social media, we can equally be physically distracted, trapped in a stuffy meeting room chatting to twelve bored managers, when we could be being far more engaged and effective on Twitter. And that’s exactly what some people do! In that very meeting room, the smartphone is hidden behind a book, and the social media realm is secretly swirling.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be either-or. But I do believe that, unless you can develop significant influence in your social media realm, you are simply being digitally distracted, because you don’t reach a tipping point where your digital activity transposes into physical world commitment. A hundred followers isn’t enough. It is a blend of both quality and quantity, but quantity is a must in the mad, chaotic ‘inferno’ of the always-on, constantly changing digital communication. If you are seeking physical world commitment, then the effort might just be spent in the physical world, unless you have time and energy (and, sadly, money) to build following, and really have a chance of create the tipping point you need. It is the tipping point where a digital thumbs up or like or ‘maybe’ becomes a credit card payment or a walk to a box office.

And there’s the paradox. The Scottish referendum proved that social media has a significant, even possible telling role to play in physical world action – in politics, in change, in progress. At the same time, a vast majority of its activity behaves like a ghost – present in physical reality, but unable to move real objects. Then it might just be better to move on.

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Paul Levy 31 Articles
Paul Levy is a writer, a facilitator, senior researcher at the University of Brighton, founder of FringeReview, and author of the book Digital Inferno, published in 2014 by Clairview Books.

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