“We’re Not Really Listening to One Another”: A Conversation with Gal Beckerman

April 22, 2022   •   By Wen Stephenson

THE ARAB SPRING, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, the Green New Deal: one thing we can say about all of these movements — however distinct in their goals, strategies, and tactics — is that they managed to capture the public imagination, at least for a certain moment, with a hashtag. They manifested to varying degrees in city squares and streets, courtrooms, legislative chambers, and election campaigns, but it’s fair to say that, without the emergence of dominant social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, our social movements and politics since 2011 — quite a history — would be unrecognizable. And, maybe, more successful.

Gal Beckerman, in his new book, The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas, would like those of us who care about making social and political change to take a break from our scrolling and posting and consider what our social media are doing to us, what we may be losing. But rather than write yet another cyber-pessimist jeremiad, Beckerman gives us a series of richly detailed historical narratives, deeply researched and reported, ranging from France during the 17th-century Scientific Revolution to the working-class Chartist movement of 1830s Britain, from the anticolonial stirrings in Accra in the 1930s to the Soviet samizdat dissidents of the 1960s, and from the riot grrrl zines of the early 1990s on up to the Arab Spring, the alt-right, and the Black Lives Matter uprisings of recent years. In each case, it becomes clear that the means of communication, the media through which radical thinkers and movement builders interact, can be as important as the ideas being developed and shared.

A book like this isn’t meant so much to inform our present fights for survival, democratic and social and planetary, as to help us step back and think about where the next radical ideas will come from, the ones we’ll need if we’re going to get through a catastrophic century. The question is whether — if we fail to get our heads out of our corporate-serving, profit-fueling feeds — these ideas will come at all.

I spoke with Beckerman by video call from his home in Studio City on February 2.

¤

WEN STEPHENSON: So, this is a conversation about people having conversations.

GAL BECKERMAN: It’s true!

I admit I’m deeply biased in favor of your argument in this book. It’s been about a year now since I deleted my Twitter account and swore off social media. Best thing I ever did. [Laughs.] But my relationship to digital media goes back to 1994, when I was a young editor at The Atlantic helping dream up the online version of the magazine, and then co-creating TheAtlantic.com in 1995 and editing its web-only journal. And I was guardedly optimistic about the internet and digital media back then. I was less sanguine about their so-called democratizing potential. I think a lot of us sensed that corporations would figure out how to monopolize the new media, as capitalism always does. But what I failed to see coming was the dominance of social media. And I can honestly say that our social media saturation, and the damage it’s doing, is now beyond anything I ever imagined, even in my most dystopian moods. Now add to this background my experience since 2010 as a journalist and activist engaged in the climate justice movement, and you see where I’m coming from. So, I’m curious, what’s the story of your own relationship to digital media and its intersection with politics and social movements?

They are kind of separate spheres. There’s how we understand the role of social media when it comes to our personal lives, and I think that people appreciate how strange and skewed the forms of communication online are, compared to what we know from real life. We understand that these are private companies that are hosting these platforms on which we communicate. They have their interests, which are opening up certain types of conversations and foreclosing certain other types of conversations. I think that’s really in the bloodstream now. When it comes to social movements, though, I believe there’s still a lot of dreaminess and sort of romanticizing of what it means to have a platform, an enormous megaphone that any person can have.

I became acutely aware of this around the time of the Arab Spring, when there was a lot of romantic talk about Twitter revolutions, and it seemed to me then, even in the flush of it, just watching it happen, that this was not sustainable. It was really great that they were able to call everybody to the square right away — the scale and the speed cannot be disputed — but it occurred to me how seductive that could be, to have a tool that allowed for that, and to believe that’s the only tool that you need. And what happened in the Arab Spring — and I didn’t make this up, this is from conversations with people who were on the ground — is they said to themselves, with some hindsight, we were so enamored with our ability to use Facebook or Twitter that we continued to do that, even the day after, when the dictator fell. Even in the best of circumstances, let’s say Egypt, when they brought the dictator down, the next day they needed some other kind of tool to build themselves into a political opposition. And that’s when it became clear that you cannot do that kind of work on Facebook and Twitter. Those platforms don’t want you to do that work on there. It’s not what they’re built for.

Are you a heavy user of social media? And have you ever thought about deleting your Twitter account?

[Laughs.] Oh, yeah, and I have definitely gone through periods of time where, let’s say, I knew I needed a degree of focus and I’ve deleted the apps from my phone or promised myself not to look at it before a certain time of day. I try to be as self-aware as I can about what it’s doing to me, or how I’m being incentivized, what kind of speech I’m putting out into the world. The other thing I’m aware of with Twitter is I’m not good at it. Because it’s not just about being witty or funny, it’s almost like this performative vulnerability. It’s putting out certain parts of yourself in order to create an impression. And to be honest, if I could be better at it, I’d probably do it too. There’s a lot to be gained these days in journalism and the media world by having 200,000 followers, it’s something that really has capital attached to it. But I’m just not good at it!

The book is a great read, and one thing I appreciate is that it’s a book about media that contains almost no jargon and very little in the way of abstract theorizing. Instead, it’s built entirely on specific stories about specific people, at specific times and places, engaged in specific forms of movement-building and idea-forming. The argument of the book is actually quite simple and direct, and the book’s great strength is in the details and the narratives. Often, it’s the other way around — a book will have an elaborate, complex argument and be weak on the details. So, tell me about the book’s argument and structure, and how it emerged.

I really appreciate that. The argument is a fairly simple one. It’s that a radical idea, an idea that’s going to undermine some fundamental aspect of our shared reality — change the way we see things, the way we see ourselves, the way our relationship is to nature or to other people — that an idea like that demands a certain amount of incubation.

Incubation is this process by which people can come together, and refine an idea, imagine different aspects of it without fear of being shamed. They can throw out certain things, egg one another on, push one another, but also gain a certain amount of cohesion as a group, if they’re going to become a social movement, and a sense of identity, of identification with each other and with the cause. All of this stuff, I believe, needs to happen, if not in a completely closed space, then a space that’s quieter and slower than we have access to these days in our dominant media forms. So that’s the argument of the book, and the idea was, what would it be like to do a book that starts in the 17th century, looking at the Scientific Revolution and how it sort of percolated through letters, as a medium, and ends with Black Lives Matter and the role that Twitter played in elevating that movement.

Initially, I was really drawn to certain kinds of stories. I did my first book about dissidents in the Soviet Union, and I’ve always been fascinated by their use of samizdat, those underground, self-produced, typewritten journals and all kinds of things they’d produce in multiple copies and share hand to hand. Samizdat had a lot of value for those groups of people, because it was the only kind of intellectual currency they could create for themselves, and they had to do it underground, it was entirely subversive, sharing ideas that were not allowed in the culture at all, they could get people thrown into jail or sent to the gulags.

And my fascination with that happened around the same time as the Arab Spring, and the hoopla around the Twitter revolutions, and the contrast between these two forms of communication really struck me. And then I started casting backward historically, and thinking, is it possible to kind of reverse-engineer some of the movements we’ve come to think about as having been successful and see at their source a form of communication, a medium, that actually helped these groups of people begin to incubate their ideas? And a rich store of examples presented itself.

One of the themes or threads I found running through the book is the need for dissidents and movement-builders to connect with one another first as individuals, or as a small group, and to relate to each other as people, not as abstract avatars on a screen or aggregate numbers of followers. And certain forms of communication, as you argue, have been better at allowing this than others. But it always comes back to people, and the relationships between people. Can you talk about that? The Soviet dissidents are a great example, because they formed a tight community and really took care of each other as human beings. And it seems to have been similar with the riot grrrl community in the early ’90s, which you write about, and the Black Lives Matter groups — there’s always this human element, and different forms of media can either help it or hinder it.

Yeah, one of the things that’s occurred to me over the last few years is our confusion over what the word “social” actually means. There’s the social of being at a cocktail party and being in a room with a lot of people, and it’s really loud, a lot conversations and snippets of conversations, and you’re moving from one to another, and then you come home at the end of the night and you’re like, I don’t feel like I really talked to anybody. That’s one kind of social. And then there’s the social of, you know, five people sitting around a table with beers or coffee, and really sharing ideas, and maybe confronting one another about something one person believes. Both these things are social, but they’re very different and they can have different outcomes, in terms of the sorts of relationships that you build.

And for me, what’s missing in our intense sociability — I mean, we’re with people all day long online, constantly hearing hundreds of different voices — is we’re not really listening to one another and building off of one another’s ideas.

You mentioned earlier that there’s something performative about Twitter and Facebook, and I think that’s crucial. Because it’s all public, all for an audience, whether you have a few hundred followers or a few hundred thousand followers, it’s still performative. And one thing you draw out in the book is that there’s this need for people to have the space, the safety, to fail, to put your foot in your mouth, to just be wrong.

Absolutely, yeah.

And in the final chapter, on Black Lives Matter, I think you found perfect vehicles for illustrating these kinds of tensions.

What’s funny is I had written a Black Lives Matter chapter that I finished a draft of in December 2019, before the George Floyd protests. And that chapter was very elegiac, like, here’s this movement that got overtaken by the social media metabolism. And then when it came back in 2020 in such an incredible way, it actually gave me an opportunity, because the activists I’d gotten to know were familiar with the cycle now. They understood what it meant to have this moment of very intense attention and visibility, and how quickly it could dissipate, and how hard it was to translate that energy into the sort of granular local changes that they were trying to achieve.

Right, they had been through the wringer with social media, through that learning process. I mean, in most of the grassroots organizing spaces I’m familiar with, the real work of organizing doesn’t happen on social media platforms. And there can be a very fraught relationship between the organizing work that’s going on and the public-facing social media interactions. Again, it all comes back to relationships and this basically human aspect of it, and a big part of that is the trust you need to build with the people you’re working with.

Yeah, how do you build that trust when, let’s say in the best of circumstances, only half of the reason someone’s saying something is so they can actually communicate with you and the other half is so that they can perform for the other however many thousands of people who are watching. It’s like a conversation through megaphones.

Exactly. So, one thing I thought was interesting about the way you told the story of the BLM groups in Minneapolis and Miami was how it illustrates that the real work of organizing and social-movement building happens offline. Or at least, not in public on social media. You have the example of how Dream Defenders made a very intentional effort to get away from social media with their “blackout.”

They literally went offline.

Yeah, and most of the organizers I know spend very little time on social media — they use it strictly as a tool — because they’re too busy actually doing the work of organizing.

So, for the Dream Defenders — this group in Miami that came out of the moment around the murder of Trayvon Martin, one of the earlier cases that was part of the BLM trajectory — they had a very high-profile protest in Florida, and then the movement spread throughout the country, it blew up in Ferguson, and they felt they were constantly trying to catch up with what they felt was a value system of visibility and attention. They told me that this was a time when newspapers and magazines would list the most effective activists in the country, but do it in terms of their Twitter followers. So, you have to have an extremely healthy, almost an impossibly healthy ego to not be affected by that, to say, I’m just going to do the work and I’m not going to care about the attention it’s getting. And the attention also matters, by the way, because with the attention come resources, there’s money to be had for nonprofit organizations if you can make your work visible.

All this was extremely confusing, or troubling, to these activists, because it felt like it scrambled their priorities. It made them see that there were things that needed to be handled or dealt with at the local level, but, as in much of our politics, they had to think nationally, in terms of how to gain attention on these big platforms. And to their immense credit, some of these leaders saw that they were going to get subsumed, they were not going to be able to have a real function anymore if they didn’t sort of stop and pull the plug, and figure out what they called their DNA, who they really were, and what they were there for.

And as I write in the chapter, Rachel Gilmer, the activist with Dream Defenders I spent a lot of time with, told me that one of the first things they realized was that one of the big items on their platform, abolishing the police — this was a very popular position on Twitter and within the community they were interacting with there — as soon as they did this blackout, where everyone deleted their apps for, I think it was three months, and started talking to people in the communities they were ostensibly serving, walking door to door, just having conversations, they realized that people didn’t really want to get rid of the police. Even if this group felt that was the ultimate goal, they were a long way off from convincing the constituency that they were supposedly speaking on behalf of. And so, the focus shifted entirely, and it became, let’s not try to draw the most attention to ourselves, let’s try to create environments where we can sensitize people to what community-led safety might look like. And let’s get their ideas, too, not talk at them but actually hear what is working and what isn’t working.

And then you write about the Black Lives Matter group in Minneapolis.

In Minneapolis, as we all remember, there was that dramatic moment in the summer of 2020 when the city council said they were going to get rid of the police. That was the most overt example of a municipality responding to the protests. But it didn’t happen. The city council had promised it, but there was another body in the city that’s in charge of the constitutional charter, and it said, no, this is not taking place. So, the only recourse, for the activists who had made this happen, was to get a petition going that would put the question on a ballot referendum, which was voted on in November 2021. My chapter ends with them embracing the petition effort — here was an opportunity that was extremely local, like canvassing, they really had to figure out how to have conversations with people, convince them, get them on board with this idea, or figure out what version of this idea could possibly work and gain their support. I think they had to get 20,000 signatures. And they managed to do it, it got on the referendum, and it was voted down, 56 percent of the city voted that they didn’t want to get rid of the police.

Well, on one level that’s a failure, right? They tried to make this happen, and it didn’t happen. But on another level, if you think of change as incremental, especially change that’s this radical — and it is radical, when you think of something as taken for granted as the cop in the blue uniform on the corner not being there anymore — then going from zero to 44 percent, that’s a pretty big increment, you know? And they’re not stopping.

You can have an opinion about their approach, or whether their goal is right or wrong, but from a purely organizing perspective, and having an idea that is very status-quo-busting, what worked for them was to get very local and have conversations. That’s what they told me, that at the end of the day, developing relationships with city council members that were sympathetic to them, and helping to get city council members elected who could represent their agenda, it’s old-school organizing, in a way, but it’s gotten kind of obscured.

It’s local politics 101.

That’s right.

Here’s one from the wayback machine. Back in 1999, I interviewed Lawrence Lessig about his book Code, which among other things made the basic point that there are political values and ideologies embedded in the design of software and computer systems, as much as in constitutions. What do you think is the ideology of Facebook or Twitter? Is it just capitalism?

[Laughs.] That’s what I would guess. I mean, it’s a business that’s built on maximizing the amount of time people will be using their service. It’s masked with a lot of fancy romantic talk about what it all means, but now I think some of that mask has dropped. But that’s what it is: it’s a privately owned business that wants you to be on there as much as possible so that it can sell advertising, and do other kinds of things, with your data.

To me, what’s interesting is that’s the starting point — they’re driven by these capitalist instincts — but then what does it mean for the type of communication we can have on there, and the ways it can mold our thinking and our relationships to one another? There’s the Marshall McLuhan, medium is the message, slightly technological-deterministic thinking about what a medium can do. I feel like that’s gone out of fashion, in a way, partly because it sounds so deterministic, like we don’t have any power in this situation. Neil Postman is another thinker that I was very inspired by.

But I feel like we don’t really engage enough with those ideas anymore. We understand that these are privately owned platforms that have certain biases, in terms of the kind of speech that they want to create. But then the next step, of asking, so what does that mean? How do we contort ourselves to fit that? That’s the part that was interesting for me in terms of understanding social movements. Because if you have an entire value system that’s built out of those platforms, and out of what they want from us, then that’s going to have a very wide impact on society as a whole, and certainly on (my specific lens) our ability to make change.

I’ll mention one counterpoint. When I was on Twitter, every once in a while I’d point out, in a critical way, the nature of these platforms. And I was tweeting to a lot of people on the left, people who aren’t white, cis, men like me, and issues of privilege came up. And I got this blowback — which I take to heart — that in some ways it sounded like I was putting down, or devaluing, the contributions of women and people of color and queer folks who had really found a voice and a kind of empowerment through Twitter.

Yeah, and I struggled sometimes in this book, because I don’t actually think of it as a cyber-pessimist book that says we should switch off the internet. I really don’t think that. I think there’s absolutely a role for a Facebook or a Twitter, the kind of loud social media, giving anybody who wants it a megaphone, which wasn’t allowed to happen in the past. What a glorious thing that that exists. I mean that genuinely. My problem is when we assume that that’s the only thing that matters, and we ignore that there are other modes that we should also be communicating in.

And again, to use the Black Lives Matter example, this frustrates the activists themselves. Even though they see the value of it, they understand that the people who are good at it gain so much capital from that without having done the work. I have an example in the book of DeRay Mckesson, who became a sort of activist star at the time, and interestingly enough, I just did a podcast with him. But he became a symbol of the type of activist who — I mean, DeRay was actually on the ground in Ferguson doing real activism, he wasn’t just sitting and tweeting at home — but nevertheless, he has like a million people who are following him, and it bought him a lot of access. He said he went to the Obama White House so many times that he stopped being nervous about going. He was on late-night TV shows. And he was speaking for an entire movement. And not only because he was good at Twitter, but largely because he was good at Twitter.

And so, even if you’re coming from a perspective that says here’s a medium that gives voice to the voiceless, if it allows somebody, just because they really understand how to work it, to gain that much more power from it — without any kind of accountability or, not in DeRay’s case but other people’s, not actually doing the work — that can be very frustrating, even for people who see it as an empowering tool. Because it empowers the wrong people, or for the wrong reasons. So, I’m saying “yes, but” — we shouldn’t discount how important it is that these tools exist, but we need to see them as tools, that they have their particular function, and are not the be-all, end-all.

¤

Wen Stephenson is an independent journalist, essayist, and activist. A frequent contributor to The Nation and The Baffler, he is a former editor at The Atlantic and The Boston Globe and has written for many publications, including The AtlanticSlateThe New York Times Book ReviewThe Boston Globe, and The Boston Phoenix. He is the author of What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice (2015).