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New basics: platform, speed, reach, response

November 23, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

This is a brainstorming piece. Let’s contrast two historical events, not equal in scale or importance but, I hope, suggestive.

1. Otto and Elise Hampel were beheaded in a Nazi prison in 1943 after what was perhaps a fruitless series of protests against Hitler’s regime. Never previously involved in politics, they were moved to action by the death of Elise’s brother as a soldier early in the war. The two residents of Berlin, perhaps unable to find any other means of public speech or political organizing, hit upon the idea of leaving anonymous postcards calling for resistance in dozens of public places around the city. The city police and then the Gestapo tracked the postcards and finally captured them. Interrogations followed, with signed confessions. Thanks to the careful filing of the Gestapo, the story and many of the postcards that were handed in by frightened or patriotic Berliners, have survived. The novelist Hans Fallada wrote a fictional version of this story in 1946, called Every Man Dies Alone.

2. In October of 2009, a British company called Trafigura attempted to prevent the Manchester Guardian from reporting on its activities using a recent innovation of the British legal system called a super-injunction. Ordinarily, a British newspaper would be free to report on the activities of Parliament, but Trafigura secured a super-injunction that had the effect (though likely not the intention) of preventing the Guardian from covering a question that had been asked in Parliament about Trafigura’s actions involving toxic waste dumping off the coast of Africa. The Guardian’s October 13 daily audio report or podcast indicated that they were being prevented from reporting but could say little more. Editor Alan Rusbridger used his Twitter account to alert his many hundreds of Twitter followers of the cryptic “we cannot report” story on the Guardian’s site, and within 42 minutes one of those readers found the question asked in Parliament, linked to it, and announced it to the world. By the next day, Trafigura’s legal team backed down somewhat on the injunction, and the Guardian resumed reporting the activities of Parliament.

What to make of the two cases, in light of the changes that are caused by social media? Let’s look at platform, speed, reach, and response.

Platform. Hampel chose to leave postcards in public places around Berlin as a kind of broadcasting, perhaps the only kind he was able to imagine in those circumstances. It seems likely that a few hundred people may have seen the postcards over a period of months, but the only record is the listing of cards turned in to the police and the Gestapo. Rusbridger chose Twitter, where his account has about 7000 followers or subscribers who received his brief entry within moments of posting. In another few moments, some of his readers passed his “tweet” along to their followers, instantly multiplying the readership.  One of Rusbridger’s readers, actor Stephen Fry, has about one million followers on Twitter, so his “retweeting” hugely multiplied the spreading of the news.

Speed and reach. Presumably both Hampel and Rusbridger reached some readers in moments, but due to the multiplier effect of Twitter Rusbridger’s words spread around the world in a very short time. Hampel probably reached just a few readers with each postcard.

Response. The responses to Hampel’s words are mostly lost to history, with the exception of those documented in his Gestapo file, which clearly serve the purposes of the state apparatus in a time of massive injustice. Rusbridger’s words speak to a social problem not nearly as far-reaching as the one Hampel addressed, but his platform, Twitter, makes response instantaneous and painless.  As a result, a small movement was formed around the social problem he was addressing, and dialogue commenced, research was undertaken, new publications in Twitter and in other formats launched in response, and a significant social institution was made to take notice in less than a day. The platform’s speed, reach, and especially its ease of response utterly changed the social possibilities for writing a few words about a social problem.

For the two writers did not have very different goals, one might guess. But the platforms were radically different, and the social opportunities created by the platforms too.

Some traditional forms of rhetorical analysis (writer, intention, relation to audience, choice of medium, etc.) probably need to be updated in order to take into account these new possibilities.

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