Imagine if half a million people marched on Washington, collectively broke federal law, did it in plain sight of the world's leaders and traditional media, and yet we all barely noticed? What if political leaders didn't even see it as a political act, but instead as some sort of funny stunt?
Over the last half-decade, it's become obvious that hundreds of thousands of people around the world have chosen to ignore copyright law and to upload copyrighted material to sites like YouTube without getting permission to do so. Technically, it's illegal. Practically, it doesn't matter. Politically, it's fascinating.
In the past, when an enormous number of people chose to willfully and blatantly disobey laws that they considered unjust, we called it an act of civil disobedience. We understood the social significant of their collective demonstration, and as a society started to reckon with the implications of their actions.Today, we instead see it as an odd quirk of online culture, and outside of some eggheaded discussions about the future of intellectual property law, we largely see it as unremarkable. And that's true despite the fact that traditional political demonstrations in the context of political activism are increasingly ineffective and anachronistic.
Putting the "Party" Back in Political Party
The open culture movement that's expressed through uploading content and remixes crosses conventional political lines and eludes identification with any traditional political affiliation. The sheer number of participants dwarfs movements (or perceived movements) that have attracted much more attention, such as the tea party efforts. Any given march on Washington these days ends not in policy reform or change in any enacted laws, but in pointless and contentious debate over how many people showed up and whether they represent an actual movement. But part of the reason this new online form of political demonstration is so effective in recruiting active participants is because it's made participation as easy as taking part in the existing social networks that so many of us contribute to every day.
For generations, political activists have said that the prerequisite to getting significant participation in a movement is to make the political personal. And nothing is more personal than the entertainment and media we consume and create on our social networks every day. Remixing is an increasingly political act.
So what happens when vast numbers of social networking citizens find another law that they consider irrelevant? What if it's something more contentious or fundamental than intellectual property law? What are the implications of the increasing disconnect between the letter of the law and its practice? Sure, we've had people disregarding marijuana usage laws for decades, but that kind of disobedience was practiced behind closed doors, not in an environment that's inherently public and social.
More importantly, what are the political efforts we can catalyze if we specifically design them to be as easy to participate in as social networking is today, and if we make sure they're not aligned to the traditional structure of political parties but instead are defined by communities of interest?
I don't know the answer, but it seems increasingly likely that even the most technophobic, regressive policy makers are going to start to understand the implications of large numbers of people in loosely-defined online communities choosing to remix and reform laws on the fly without any granted authority to do so. I can't pretend to know what this development implies. What I do know is that we've seen it as a sort of odd aberration for half a decade now, but soon we'll be obligated to see it as a new political tactic to be reckoned with.
Related: The Power of the Audience, about the sense of common experience on the realtime web.