So, We Can Engineer a Mass Movement to Hack the Christmas Pop Charts, but We Can't Agree on a Global Climate Change Treaty?

The schadenfreude becomes stale quite quickly, doesn’t it? No sooner had the whoops of glee at Simon Cowell’s failure to reach the Christmas Number 1 spot for the fifth consecutive year, and the many ironies of the Rage Against the Machine campaign were clear for all to see.  First amongst these is the fact that R.A.t.M.’s angry Killing in the Name and Joe McElderry’s saccharine version of The Climb were Sony Music records:  Joe is on Simco Records (i.e. Simon Cowell) “under exclusive licence to Sony Music Entertainment UK Ltd” while Rage Against The Machine’s label is Epic, a subsidiary of Sony.
The campaign put a small dent into Simon Cowell’s sales figures.  Last year, Alexandra Burke’s Hallelujah sold 576,000 copies in the week before Christmas, while this year Joe McElderry only managed 450,000.  But this hardly suggests that Cowell’s business model is on the wane – Leon Jackson only sold 275,000 copies of his single, When You Believe in 2007.  Cowell knows that a bit of controversy is good for his bottom line.  He knows that the label ‘Christmas Number One’ is an entirely relative marketing concept anyway, and modern music history is littered with classic hits which never reached that false summit.
So although the Facebook campaigners for Rage Against the Machine were successful, I can’t help thinking that there is something confused about the campaign and its aims.  They say:

… it’s given many others hope that the singles chart really is for everybody in this country of all ages, shapes, and sizes…and maybe re-ignited many people’s passion for the humble old single as well as THAT excitement again in actually tuning in to the chart countdown on a Sunday.

In taking this line, the campaigners seem to be endorsing the Singles Chart as an appropriate indicator of good and popular music, when it is manifestly nothing of the sort.  Yes, they reclaimed the ‘excitement’ for a single week… but they did so with a seventeen year-old song which was chosen precisely for its contrast with its competitor.  That is entirely different from what the campaigners have nostalgia for – new music from good bands, battling it out.  Former chart battles were essentially a positive contest, with music fans buying their favourite record.  The 2009 campaign had an entirely negative “anyone by Cowell” message, which is unsustainable.

False Metrics

Modern internet campaigns often seem to fall into the trap of chasing targets based on false metrics. The campaign for Gary McKinnon (the computer hacker in danger of extradition to the US) seems to be a victim:

lets make #mckinnonmonday ‘trend’ – TWEET4GARY NOW !!! please tweet ALL #american friends and ask them to help #FREEGARY #garyMckinnon
– @cliffsul

The aim of #mckinnonmonday is to make Gary McKinnon trend #garymckinnon Pls RT
– @dandelion101

Shouldn’t the aim be to generate anger and interest in the Gary McKinnon story? How helpful is all the constant RT’ing if it doesn’t translate to bodies at the protest, letters in the politician’s in-tray.
And it is not just impoverished grassroots campaigners falling into this trap, either.  Here is a recent tweet from a Cabinet Minister:

Support #welovetheNHS, add a #twibbon to your avatar now! –

Admittedly, sending the tweet is hardly a burden on Mr Milband’s resources, but its odd and disturbing that politicians and political campaigns have started to relate to us in this way.  The idea that the NHS is something to love is presumed, and the campaign becomes about forming a huge group of people around a slogan for a fleeting moment only.  Did anyone capture the e-mail addresses of those who tweeted #welovetheNHS?  If not then it seems like a wasted moment.
And as for Twibbons?  This innovation seems to me to be a hugely reductive exercise, shrinking political debate to a space 100 pixels wide.
Now, lest you assume I am engaging in pure snark, I should point out that I am as guilty of this hashtag chasing as the next person – perhaps more so.  I helped the Burma Campaign devise their project, which was, frankly, all about the hashtag.  And only today I’ve written a press release lauding the fact that PEN‘s Libel Reform petition has just reached 10,000 signatures, a figure that will something only if it serves to light a fire under either Jack Straw or Dominic Grieve.
Its very easy to raise ‘awareness’ of any given issue, but that’s not the same thing as establishing a consensus that what you are proposing is right.  And in turn, that is not the same thing as actually motivating people to action.  It would be a great shame if “taking action” became synonymous with simply sharing links and joining endless Facebook groups, because when that “action” fails to translate into meaningful change, we will only find that another generation have been turned off politics, disillusioned.   The Obama campaign has been criticised recently for its rather top-down approach to twitter, which didn’t really engage in conversation with supporters.  But nevertheless, he actually inspired people out of their houses and into the campaign HQs.  Did some of us think that Twitter could start a revolution in Iran?  Not quite (as Jay Rosen points out).  While the #IranElection tag on Twitter has been a useful tool for the protesters and for those reporting on the crisis it is clearly the people on the ground that will really put that regime under pressure (and we hope that the passing of Ayatollah Hoseyn Ali Montazeri will provide inspiration to renew that pressure).
All of which is to say that George Monbiot’s sanctimonious article this morning had the ring of truth about it:

For the past few years good, liberal, compassionate people – the kind who read the Guardian – have shaken their heads and tutted and wondered why someone doesn’t do something. Yet the number taking action has been pathetic. Demonstrations which should have brought millions on to the streets have struggled to mobilise a few thousand. As a result the political cost of the failure at Copenhagen is zero. Where are you?

We’ve been tweeting #hashtags and adding #twibbons to our avatar, George.  Get with the programme, yeah?

10 Replies to “So, We Can Engineer a Mass Movement to Hack the Christmas Pop Charts, but We Can't Agree on a Global Climate Change Treaty?”

  1. First of all, lets get one thing straight:
    Mass demonstrations are ignored in democracies
    Demos are largely seen as something reactionaries with time on their hands get up to. In fact, MPs feel compelled to ignore demonstrations.
    One tweet has a longer lifetime than most demonstrations. If there is one thing Twitter/Facebook does brilliantly it’s to co-ordinate effort. That was certainly made crystal clear by the RATM campaign. Power can be re-routed through organisation.
    The climate change argument simply hasn’t been settled. “Awareness” to “consensus” to “action” sounds like some form of Communist workflow; I could reply with twaddle from the Matrix “you have already decided, now you must understand your choice”. Most people formed opinions on climate change with a speed and determination that far outstripped their understanding.
    It looks very much that Twitter has changed Iran. It hasn’t altered the voting system, but it has hopefully helped Iranians focus on what they actually want from their leaders. So in very different cases, Twitter does “work”.

  2. You raise some interesting points re the battle for the Xmas Number One but can I just add that Simon Cowell has failed again to give his act a good song I mean this one is just not very good. I am not talking about genres here as boy bands such as Westlife have shown that there are very good songs which form part of that genre out there. Joes song lacks any kind of half decent hook and chorus.
    I suspect he may be attempting to maximise his profits by either A) employing second rate songwriters or b) using ( as in this instance) second rate covers.
    The bottom line is that if Joes song had been any good he would have won this particular battle.
    So Simon as you are fond of saying yourself, I think the song selection was wrong, you chose the wrong song mate !

  3. Really good article and something that has mirrored my own view recently.
    It is as if that the idea that the internet gives power back to the people has become so strong that we look for the most inane things to justify our belief of this myth.
    While other countries still have a healthy form of public protest, the system in the UK is so closed that we now look for any easy targets to justify that it still exists here!
    We now use the internet to get a chocolate bar released, to effect the sales of songs etc, etc.Twitter, Facebook and all the rest of the social media tools we play with are a fantastic waste of time. Just like drugs keep the disaffected youth from rioting, the internet has been used to stop the lazy thinking person from actually doing something to interrupt the political class’s appetite for power.
    Of course, I can’t change anything, once I’ve posted this comment, I will read a few blogs, post a rant on twitter and carry on with my life, smug in the feeling that I have done something!

  4. Cherry-picking a few choice tweets from private individuals which are pretty unrepresentative of what is in fact an eight-year campaign isn’t quite right, Rob.
    I for one have written a number of factual articles about Gary McKinnon for precisely the reasons you suggest. And I happen to know I am not alone in that either. On Twitter, if you look, large numbers of #garymckinnon tweets are about the facts of the matter, not to mention the painstaking efforts to convince people of why the extradition is unjust. Tweeter by tweeter.
    I also happen to know that the Home Office and Buckingham Palace have both been overwhelmed with the volume of letters and phonecalls. Twitter is only the most readily visible aspect of a campaign which has so far been successful in keeping McKinnon in the UK, and has gathered cross-party support in Parliament, a single recorded by Bob Geldof, Chrissie Hynde, David Gilmour and others, a barrage of individual complaints to MPs, the Home Secretary and the Queen, and other things in the pipeline which I am not at liberty to publicise just yet.
    As for the recent protest outside the Home Office (attended by no less than 8 MPs, including Nick Clegg and Keith Vaz), many of those attending were in fact recruited via Twitter. Including people who travelled to London from the West Country and from East Anglia especially for the occasion. To say that Twitter doesn’t translate into action is therefore false. How do you think *I* got involved with it? Seriously. I for one am living proof that Twitter “works”.
    And you have to bear in mind of course, that the Gary McKinnon campaign has no budget, no employees, and consists of public-spirited well-wishers who have their own lives to conduct. Not bad for a bunch of hobbyists, I would say.
    In any case, raising awareness is a vital first step. And I don’t think it’s very nice to knock it. Your mother would do the same as Janis Sharp, I am sure, especially if she weren’t a professional campaigner. Which the vast majority of Gary McKinnon’s supporters are not.
    DE also is right. Human decision-making is “fast and frugal”.
    What IS interesting is how people generally are more ready to vote for a christmas single or a Big Brother contestant than they are to act on matters of any actual significance. It’s not as cool or new-fangled, maybe, as purporting to debunk a web 2.0 “myth”, but it is *people* that do this stuff. Or don’t do it. Just as they have since time immemorial.

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