(Warning: This text is another “I am so smart” piece on society. It might be full of categorical opinions and not-so-well-hidden insults)
Some years ago, I have stumbled upon the German “internet activists” and became somewhat fascinated. They were pretty cool guys that were trying to solve the social and technical issues that were brought by the Internet and other technical novelties. As the German government made its move “Let’s police online communication of our little citizens” (several times, once because of EVIL TERRORISTS, then FOR THE SAKE OF THE CHILDREN, and possibly also for the STARVING ARTISTS), the reaction of the Netzgemeinde (German for online community) was to form a political structure to voice its concerns to the wide audience. And it worked. Despite the general organizing issues, a political party, The Pirate Party of Germany was formed and started to push itself into awareness of the wide audience. In the beginning, the success was due to several reasons: Firstly, in the existing political spectrum, there has been little attention to “internet policy” topics, secondly, there was a general distrust towards the political system after several not-so-well received feats like VAT increase, economic crisis and other general chaos. Hence, the success of the Pirate Party was not completely surprising. The question was if they were able to expand this success.
The tragic reality of any social movement is that even people who believe they trust you cannot be completely trusted, which means that the chance of having strange people with strange or misunderstood goals in your movement is rather high. This issue can become serious as these people can (by the law of the large numbers) climb the organizational ladder and speak things for your organization that are, at best, not completely approved. In the worst case, they will try to project their beliefs onto everyone in the organization, and intentionally speak for everyone in debatable cases. Paradoxically, the bigger and older parties or NGOs circumvent this problem by being big, old and having some bureaucratic delay, which together forms a “Serious Business” atmosphere where a random person cannot change too much; think of it as a social fool-proof mechanism.
What does this have to do with the Netzgemeinde? Well… It is an intersection of risk groups. People with incentive to change (high probability of radical opinions); technologically advanced users with high in-group impact, people without much political experience (less ready to acknowledge alien interests), and, by the law of the large numbers, some people who want to self-present. Could it go wrong? Well, could it work, to begin with?
So, shitstorms ensued. One reason most organizations do not discuss internal matters publicly is the need to hide potentially damaging conflicts. However, PP wanted to be transparent. This decision imposed a requirement on discipline that had to be enforced on all participants, and this is not what happened. You also have to consider that the existing political movements did not like to have more competition and actively tried to undermine PP by telling that the Pirate Party does not share the Spirit of ’68 (as if it is something to be ashamed of) or just by actively looking for political mistakes. It surely didn’t help that beyond the core topics of Internet politics, there was not that much consensus concerning other political problems. Is it possible to live with these problems? Yes, sure, but one had to be careful and not shitstorm too often. Tragically, this was not the case. The downfall began in 2012, when the party had some remarkable initial successes (about 9% in Berlin) and some members thought it would be a good time to monetize their political experience by writing a book. There is a reason people summarize their political lives after they retire from politics, and the reason is that even if you write awful stuff, only you will suffer. The books were not that great and led to long discussions on Twitter where no one cared about restraint, especially after one of the writers complained that her books were pirated and considered legal action – not the wisest PR move for a member of the Pirate Party. Teh drama continued in discussions about potentially cool but politically and technically complicated organizational stuff, feminism, and history and even the whistle-blowing duo Manning/Snowden, directed by Assange, could not help much. For me, the last straw that took my sympathy away was a FEMEN-like performance in Dresden that aimed to provoke neo-Nazis but backfired badly; seriously, if you write “Thanks Bomber Harris” on your breasts, you should not take part in any political movement that wants to be taken seriously by people outside your peer group (which is rather marginal, in this specific case). And since every single part of this drama was feasted upon by the Netzgemeinde, I could follow it without actually having to go out of my way. Thank you, Twitter, for that much entertainment.
What can we conclude from all that? If you are trying to start a political movement, you have to establish some kind of discussion rules and enforce them strictly. If you think your movement should be labeled “progressive”, be aware that this attracts unexpected audience and you will have to deal with things like social justice, the internet and people with radical opinions. And be aware (at every organization level) that communication is more important than you could ever think. And most important of all: you have to define common goals. One of the reasons the whole internet community destroyed itself in a bunch of shitstorms is that their vocabulary had words like “protocol”, “transparency”, “freedom”, and “narrative”, but the word “goal” seemed completely alien, the most close goal is to get the fuzzy warm gut feeling of Doing The Right Thing, which is admittedly nice, but subjective and not very much scalable for groups larger than five to ten people. Hence, the internet community ultimately devoured itself on conflicting goals, lack of consensus and unwillingness to do political work, which is not the same as tweeting memes.