11 May 2015
As the Labour bubble burst amid a volley of disbelieving posts on election night the echo-chamber limitations of Twitter and Facebook became all too clear
One of the biggest shocks of this election is the realisation that you can’t get a socialist paradise on Earth by tweeting. Or even by putting up really angry statuses on Facebook. Who knew? Actually, as people who do this kind of thing all follow each other, it seems that many of them still don’t realise. In the echo chambers some of us inhabit online, everyone not only votes Labour but crows about it in 140 characters.
I love social media and think it is brilliant in all kinds of ways for connecting us, but its limitations have been clearly shown in this election. Declaring one’s allegiances is fine if you understand who you are declaring them to. No one really does. Hope soon changed on election night into disbelieving, angry tweets. Is there an emoji for howling? All of this happened in self-selecting universes.
We all of us inhabit bubbles, and in the current postmortem at least we can see more clearly what some of those bubbles are.
There is the London bubble: “London is the world and it is basically Labour.” There is the ancestor-worship bubble: “Let’s go on about unions and how my mam always voted Labour.” There is the Blairite bubble: “What everyone needs is not to share but to own some shares.” There is the “I told you so” bubble: “Ed lost the election way back in 2010.”
All of these views are available on old media, and very much so on social media too. They each entail a purity untainted by leaving any of these bubbles.
Twitter and Facebook function to reinforce, rather than challenge, opposing views. Spats can get nasty, of course – but did anyone who was going to vote Ukip get swayed by Labour because of a bunch of know–alls on Twitter? I plead guilty to this sort of behaviour myself because everyone is a know-it-all on Twitter. Now I watch lefty mates declaring they are going to unfollow anyone remotely conservative, and I am dismayed. If you can’t even have a conversation with someone who votes differently to you, how do you begin to imagine you might bring them back to your way of thinking?
Waves of such agitation run through social media, but it is largely left-leaning and inward-looking and backslapping. It’s also full of consolation, sparks of brilliance and the best jokes, but its sense of self-importance needs puncturing .
The king of self-importance, Russell Brand himself, was deemed to be influential partly because of his enormous Twitter following. Now he admits he didn’t know what he was doing endorsing Ed! Wow, is the pope even religious? It turns out that the correlation between Twitter followings, and, er, actual votes, is somewhat mystical.
Many of us got things wrong, not just the pollsters. The ones who got it a bit right are those who stepped out of the bubbles. A lot of media reported the debate going on within the media, or on TV. All meta-meta, but when I watched the filmed reports of my colleagues, John Harris and John Domokos, going round the country – talking to people instead of tweeting at them – the sense of doom and uncertainty was apparent. The England that was not keen on Labour was there in those shopping-centre car parks, those emptied-out Ballardian landscapes. This feeling I recognised from talking to Ukip supporters during happy hour in a theme pub in Ramsgate.
The gap between what people were saying, and how this was reflected so little on social media, is something we need to understand. Or we literally are talking to ourselves.
I don’t have the answers – but whatever the left now is, or how it may reconstitute itself, I know for sure we may have to get out of the house. The revolution will not be hashtagged.