Jumping over the gatekeepers with 140 characters
(This is the translation of an article I wrote for a Catalan audience, in DiariAra, on January 23.)
The two weeks before the agreement on the new Catalan president were some of the most depressing and nasty on Catalan social media that I’ve seen in a long time. There were moments when I wondered if this is how wars start.
We are entering a new period of maturity on social media. It only took a few incidents to happen for people to realize that Twitter is no joke, no simple reporter of breakfast banalities, and no messenger app. What goes on there is absolutely public and prime for general consumption, even and perhaps especially when it’s anonymous.
How can you tell, in a system that appreciates the value of anonymity, who you can depend on? The answer lies in credibility, which each of us has the power to construct or destroy according to our own abilities. Credibility on social media is a kind of social currency of the 21st century, and is the foundation of the self-made twitterer. You don’t need to and indeed can’t inherit it or buy it. Credibility on Twitter is forged tweet by tweet, with information, humor, perspicacity, constance, and also with ambient intimacy — those tweets that reveal the authentic personality of a twitterer, what matters to them outside work, outside their stated interests. After following a twitterer for a while, you get to know them and trust them (or mistrust them).
There are articles that you interpret completely differently depending on who’s passing them around. There are statements from politicians that you see differently depending on who’s doing the quoting. The authority of the source is fundamental, and on Twitter, for the first time, this authority is within anyone’s reach. Within mine, within yours. That fact really gets under some people’s skin.
Now we combine that phenomenon with the situation in Catalonia: an enormously complicated political system, with multiple parties, countless overlapping alliances, and a long and convoluted history; a State that during 40 years was based on police oppression, censorship and silencing a people and hiding them from the world, and which continues to refuse to listen to that people or let them explain themselves (according to the Wall Street Journal); a State where 85% of the people are interested in news but only 34% believe what they read; a language that was prohibited and which continues to be an obstacle for foreign correspondents; a journalistic profession in full out crisis with ever-shrinking salaries, reader share in free fall, and an emphasis on sensationalism, and, if that all weren’t enough, a topic of immense importance to the entire world, to Spain, to the stability of the Euro and the European economy, just for starters. It’s no coincidence that journalists in Madrid are 25% less likely to believe that Catalan independence is possible than those who are based in Catalonia.
Nevertheless, we have a people that has decided that it wants to change its political future, or at the very least vote on it. And they have done everything possible to do so peacefully and democratically. And they have come smack up against everything that I just explained: a status quo as immutable as the sky, that looks them in the face and laughs, and makes a grave error with its arrogance.
Twitter lets these people jump over the traditional gatekeepers. For the first time, mere mortals can directly access those who are making history and those who write about it. No prior money or connections are required. Nobody should be surprised if activists demand the highest level of attention to the independence process from the press — both local and foreign — and from our political leaders. It is normal and good that we ask questions, that we reveal biased arguments, that we demand corrections and that we insist on precision. It’s not only correct and healthy: it’s essential for constructing this new strong, transparent democracy.
But be careful. Twitter only works if all the players are there: the powerful and the rest of us. In order for everyone to keep being present, we have to keep the playing field respectful and insult-free. It’s good to ask for — to demand! — answers but we can’t go back to those weeks of unfounded accusations and an obsession with zingers. My brother-in-law wisely says that those who speak softly are listened to more than those who scream. It’s not about the volume, it’s about the tone. And to the politicians and journalists, I remind you that Twitter is a tool for sharing your campaigns and promises, or articles in the case of the latter, but you also have a responsibility to listen to us and answer our questions, and to make amends in public when necessary. Let’s keep going.