The revolutionary web site as an engagement tool & means of forging collective identity

The revolutionary paper used to be at the centre of activity of almost every small revolutionary organisations. Every member would be expected to play a role in relation to that paper and because of that would develop & defend an organisational identity based around the content of the paper. For 99% of them that role in relation to the paper would be restricted to selling it but all the same it helped make them part of an organisational collective identity.

 Selling paper may not have been fun but apart from simple outreach it had three huge benefits for the collective project all those members were engaged in
- it enabled them to reach ten time their number or more with what they thought the most important things to discuss were - in that way it formed the collective political culture they existed in because in the pre internet period the number of competing radical perspectives people could discover was very limited.
- it was an engagement tool that every member used. You talked to the people you sold papers to about the content of the paper and over time brought some of them to the organisation through those discussions.
- it created a collective identity - because you were selling the paper you were responsible for what it said thus giving you a strong interest in the process by which articles were published and policies decided.

That sense of collective identity was so strong that I saw organisations attack rival organisations on the basis of articles that appeared in their press 20 years beforehand. At a time in fact when everyone in the room for that discussion would have been in their early teens. The most hidebound organisations still use the paper in this way, the Spartacist League for instance regularly flies two or three members into Dublin for larger demonstrations in the hope of selling what can be no more than a couple of dozen papers denouncing its rivals. The SWP still tries to use the ritual of the weekly paper sale (now with added meaningless petition) as the focus around which to build branches. They tend to quote Lenin who as far back as 1901 was arguing for this sort of use of a paper as a "scaffolding round a building under construction, which marks the contours of the structure and facilitates communication between the builders, enabling them to distribute the work and to view the common results achieved by their organised labour."

The common mistake the left has used as it has (in some cases eventually) opened up to web publishing is to try and crudely map the way a paper worked to the way the web works. Which you can't easily do, leaving relic paper sales which appear to have very little functionality beyond an attempt to forge a collective identity in a way that now seems archaic.

Can a organisations web site be used in the same way? Yes, but its not so simple. Because the web sort of distributes for you an organisations web site can very quickly become only the work of those who maintain it and those who write for it. And because its not distributed as a physical package of articles in the same way as a printed publication even the relationship between individuals writing articles and the collective identity of the site can be relatively weak. Distribution is the key here. The tendency is to rely on organisational resources like Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and good old fashioned email lists to do all the organised distribution of the sites material. Individual members might randomly share their own articles or others they find interesting but their distribution role is not part of a collective project and is no more than that of anyone who might look at the site.

Perhaps we should expect in broad terms a commitment from every member to a good organisational web site that is similar to the commitment they would have been expected to give to the paper. For organisations that are more that a clump of friends some sort of ongoing process of creating and maintaining collective identity is probably essential to act against the counter tendency to fragment over differences - differences in perspective after all will always exist. Where there is not a common press that the members need to collectively defend such differences may end up being expressed not through internal debate but through external grumbling, a process that is disastrous for any organisation as it leaves not only differences unchallenged but means its potential for growth is constantly undermined by its own members.

Perhaps we should expect members to regularly distribute content from the organisations website as part of the collective actions that is a requirement of membership. And to be actively present on the organisations site and web resources to engage with contacts & followers. The distribution requirement could be by requiring members to Share or Tweet some content (e.g. the index pages for publications, key editorial statements etc) as a restatement of collective identity. If that sounds too imposing compare it to the pre-internet days when the requirements of membership of most organisations would have included selling papers at city centre stalls and by going around pubs in the evening as well as attempting to sell to friends and workmates. Through this process members would be strongly identified with the content produced in the eyes of their friends or followers and so they share part of a collective responsibility for what is written. This means they would feel an active need to either defend that content or seek to have it changed.

But a website is not a paper and one of the major advantages it has over a paper is that it can make it easy for readers to answer back. This terrifies the left - very few far left websites allow users to comment on articles. Those left organisations that maintain Facebook pages often ruthlessly police the comments to prevent anything even slightly critical being said. The Irish SWP for instance recently removed comments from a Socialist Party member who stated that the Swedish riots should be approached critically rather than simply seen as uprisings of the urban poor. That user was even banned from the page to prevent him leaving any further comments. A typical example of the fear the old left has of allowing its ideas to be challenged outside of very narrowly defined spaces set up by the party. It's why the SWP and many similar groups hated and initially boycotted indymedia and for a long time tried to head off attempts by sections of their own membership to investigate using the internet as a useful tool.

These attempts to make invisible dissent from the organisational line should be rejected as counter productive given a left history where the suppression of dissent reached such muderous levels that it is probably the main reason most people who reject the left do so. But its also counter productive. Comments should be invited on an organisations website as a way of increasing the engagement of the organisations audience. It's reasonable to set rules to try and keep discussion useful and to ban obviously abusive behaviours. And it probably makes sense to exclude certain extreme posters like fascists or open racists, homophobes etc. With that earlier example of the Swedish riots the chance to have a public discussion of how socialists should approach urban insurrections that lack a visible or coherent political program could have been welcomed and might perhaps have generated a discussion thread that would remain useful years afterwards. That sort of riot is after all common enough and there are few if any solid examples of the left managing to build out of such experiences - instead they tend to become excuses for the right to proclaim the need for measures to enforce 'law & order'

But beyond that a requirement of membership should be a willingness to engage with commentators so that there are multiple people waiting and willing to engage with those interested in an organisation and its views. The energy that is currently mostly used having arguments with mates on personal Faceboook profiles can instead become part of the collective process of building genuinely useful and engaging website content. With a well moderated site its quite a common experience to learn far more from the debate in the comments section than you do from the original articles.

Early socialists in fact encouraged engagement round differences with their organisational positions with the very much more limited resources at their disposal. Irish Socialist Republican Party street meetings in Dublin in the 1910's for instance would be set up with a couple of hecklers planted to start a discussion that would draw in a crowd more effecively than a lecture from a speaker would. This was a model that was probably copied from the IWW in the north America. A good part of the content of some left papers would comprise of letters and even articles drawn from outside the membership of the organisation despite the considerable expense of printing those non-party words on paper and the considerable workload of later distributing them. That made for a very much more engaging press than is typical of the left press today. The left press todayt is largely comprised of articles that any reader around the left more than a couple of years with a knowledge of that party could have written. For the most part the left press is simply not worth reading, any genuine news can probably be gleaned from online sources and the party editorial line is dull and unchallenging.

Here I have concentrated on the role that a website can play in relation to forging collective identity and the engagement strategy of an organisation but don't assume from this that I think print publication is dead. It is not but its role is very much transformed because so much information can be obtained faster online, even with a daily paper news articles are out of date by the time they reach the reader and a typical left weekly or monthly is stuffed with stale news. But newspapers remain a way of getting ideas into the hands of those that might not otherwise come across them. And magazine and books remain a method to lay down long and complex arguments that many would find difficult to read & follow on a computer screen. The question of how both should be transformed I'll leave for another post.

WORDS: Andrew Flood (follow me on Twitter)

This post is part of the series of blogs and related material on the topic of what Networked revolutionary organisation looks like or might look like

Comments

Another good article, Andrew.

Another good article, Andrew. The decription is pretty much spot on. The answers are perhaps more difficult to find though. For instance, I'm not so sure that mandatory sharing (i.e. distribution) is the way forward. Well, perhaps, but then not only to fb contacts, but also in environments one doesn't know (like the good 'ol paper).

-Kim K, Oslo

Its an interesting question -

Its an interesting question - I can see members of organisations including my own being perhaps a little outraged at the suggestion but it would seem to make sense both in terms of collective engagement and forging organisational identity.  Its that identity that has been lost quite a lot in the last decade with the rise of networked politics and there are some pretty serious downsides to that loss.

A minor quibble, these are blogs rather than articles as I'm very much shooting from the hip in a provocative way to see what reactions I gather.  Probably once I have a lot published I may try and assemble them into one of more coherant articles.

  


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