Sunday 6 February 2011


Every revolution, every movement, every policy, every strategy has its backlash moment. This is the social media backlash. However, in a clear reflection of the way the world currently is, the backlash is not coming from mainstream traditional media. It's coming from within.

Within the space of 3 days, 4 people mentioned the book The Net Delusion to me. There seemed to be a bit of a buzz, and despite one person who recommended it doing so with a certain malicious glint in their eye, being a good little geek I downloaded the sample of it on my Kindle.

I got as far as the author both admitting he was an ex social media evangelist and that the web was entirely responsible for everything bad in the world before I deleted the sample without even getting to the end of it. We've all met ex-smokers, yes? Remember how irritating and irrational they can be? How they suddenly seemed to be rendered incapable of acknowledging personal choice? So too, ex anything else who suddenly decide they've been utterly deluded and need to tell the entire world about it. I want unbiased observations, commentary and analysis on a subject which has become so intrinsic to my existence, not the view of an ex anything. 

The second issue I had, was the intimation that 'social media bods' were incapable of acknowledging that the web had made it incredibly easy, as the Egypt situation has eloquently shown, that it is very easy to flip a few switches and completely remove the new shiny ability to communicate instantly. However, amusingly, all Mubarak has shown is that removing tech means either a) someone will create a system which will turn text messages into tweets or b) there will be a revolution anyway, because once a ball that size is rolling down the hill, well, don't get in the way of it and if you do, expect to get rolled right over.

Extrapolating from this, there is also the acknowledgement that the web has made it far easier for groups such as the BNP, KKK and EDL to convene and organise, in the same way as the UKUNCUT groups also have. I'm not arguing with that. I don't think anyone would argue with that. What I am arguing with is the stupid notion that somehow someone who believed in what those groups stood for would never have managed to find an address to write to or a telephone number to call, or even a zine to subscribe to, before the web. To think this is deluded. To ignore the intelligence value to interested agencies is also stupid. Zines cannot be keyword monitored. Emails and Facebook groups can. Letters cannot be intercepted as easily as emails. All ISP's are legally obliged to keep everything sent digitally for 12 months across their servers by an EU Directive - something the government paid £12 billion towards last year. Further to this, GCHQ are planning mass monitoring techniques in order to keep up with what's being said where. Anyone who knows the history of cryptography and intelligence in this country will only be shocked that it has taken GCHQ this long to get in on the party. One suspects the CIA have not been so backward. 

I acknowledge that monitoring in this way can be abused. So can telephone monitoring (hi, Mr Coulson), or, indeed, any kind of intelligence. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely etc etc. But the simple fact is, anyone who thinks that anything they do or say on the internet is private is stupid. There are simply different levels of privacy. And in some cases, that is a good thing, as it allows the people who look after us and make sure we don't get caught in the crossfire to monitor and keep tabs on 'interesting parties'. The truly scary thing, perhaps, is that I don't know who keeps an eye on the people keeping an eye - or rather that I do know who keeps an eye on who keeps an eye and they don't perhaps know enough about technology and its limitations and capabilities to be able to make fair judgements when asked to sign warrants. And back we go to the Digital Economy Act. 

Once we've acknowledged absolute lack of privacy, what do we have then? An acknowledgement that as soon as a movement is big enough to be on a radar, there is no surprise and no secrecy. Infiltration used to be physical, by undercover police officers - now it's simply a matter of tapping on a keyboard and making sure IP ranges display properly. Simpler, one imagines. Less costly, also. But it hasn't changed the fact that intelligence gathering happens, it hasn't introduced anything new to the equation, it's simply changed the balance of the equation a little, perhaps moved power temporarily. 

Ultimately, the same things happen in the same ways, with the same people watching the same other people - the only thing which has changed which is the range of tools to do the job. The power balance hasn't changed, the rules haven't changed and the actual outcomes haven't changed (Mubarak would have fallen, I believe, without Twitter, blogs or Facebook), it is simply the arena within which we all operate which has changed.

Just one more thought - almost every single piece of technology which you use on the web today, from instant chat to webcams, from secure payment transactions to mass collaboration is directly a result of the need for those same technologies in the porn industry. 

Out of bad things can come good things. Out of good things, can come bad. But in the end, I believe it all balances. And if believing that makes me net deluded, so be it.

This post was entirely inspired by @curiousc aka Catherine Howe's wonderful post. In the reply I mentioned a server farm in East Anglia, because I honestly thought the government had gone ahead with their plans which were originally reported in Computer Weekly a good few years ago. Proper research (natch) resulted in the post above. 


  1. great post. as ever. and great link to another one. mucho food for thought. The bit that grabbed me most thanks to your research and reading is the dog years metaphor from Catherine's post. How fast things are moving and how quickly we are all playing catch up. Some are ahead of the game, and some are being left way behind. Way way behind. I agree, with what you say, things will happen with or without the internet, but we all know about stuff as it happens now. The pace of life is much faster and more info is widespread. It ain't gonna go away either. Its gonna get faster. We have to be prepared, the world won't wait for us. (All the more reason for fibre. Moral and Optic)

  2. Agreed Chris. Totally. I've also missed something out of this post entirely - the cultural impact of the web - which is the next issue.