The collective has gotten a bad name.
In the context of this toxic social media present, it is synonymous with groupthink and mob rule, if not cancel and shame culture. That this is what has become of our sensing of collective work is a measure of the success of the six years of a leadership that took down—with words and violent policy—organizations that it deemed as enemies.
There is no talking about this present without admitting defeat. Its success was in its strategies of containment, diverse as these were, and caring little as it did about how it looked, and who would be hit. Sometimes these were real mass organizations that have had a long history in activist work; other times these were imagined collectives formed through fictional matrices, where connections are made based on who follows who and who shares what on social media. It would be laughable if its repercussions weren’t real.
But while that hilarious matrix couldn’t prove a conspiracy to overthrow government, it did reveal one thing: how easy it is to imagine a collective where there is none. And this is important because it speaks to all of us—those who can believe a fictional conspiracy, and those who think their virtual collectives exist in reality, and is even the best one in this context of social inequality and political difference.
Those are two sides of the same collective coin, the dichotomy that social media nurtures, the divide that we either deny exists or we dismiss as irrelevant. In this social media space that we all invariably inhabit, the “collective” is only as deep and as wide as the algorithms we belong to. And this might be the bigger denial that so many of us live with: that our collective is the collective, that it is the one that holds the truth, or is on the right side of history, or even, that it is the one that matters.
We are at a point when being aware of how algorithms work in general is not enough; we should be talking about how these algorithms, no matter how small, no matter if it co-exists with fake accounts, can generate enough noise to make them believable as a large enough space of discourse and democracy. And sure, we acknowledge the comfort in these spaces, but what fumes do we breathe inside that bubble? And at what point does it breed delusions? And what kind of “memory” do we create in these spaces, when it is deliberately disengaged from a bigger public, the collective of which we are undoubtedly part?
“We lived through the end of the world, and that meant a common experience, a stretch of two years when our lives were interwoven, regardless of socio-political differences and social media algorithms.”
This is not a pitch for thinking in terms of a metaverse. Not only is that silly, it also fuels the notion that what we need here are superheroes— heroes of course that will always only come from the delusion of one space, that algorithm nurtured by divisiveness. Thinking in metaverses also limits the discussion to simplistic notions of bridging the gap between two, three, four different “universes,” when the more complex task is how we regain a sense of a collective, one that is not simply bound to what is on social media, but what is real to all of us, regardless of the bubbles we live in, the delusions we hold dear, the algorithms we are part of.
The pandemic and the violent, unkind lockdowns had shown us the way. We lived through the end of the world, and that meant a common experience, a stretch of two years when our lives were interwoven, regardless of socio-political differences and social media algorithms. We could stand in solidarity and assist where necessary. If there is a collective memory to be nurtured from that time it would be in relation to a sensing of the possibilities for solidarity.
But must we face a global public health emergency again to find this collective, to build on a memory that we all share? We shouldn’t need to. That moment proved that if the goal is to transcend these divides in the virtual, then what we need to be looking at are the issues and policies that affect all of us, in real life, in nation. And those exist in different kinds of crises, ones that are interconnected. Those are interwoven into the matrices of our everyday lives, despite the divides.
It is only when we build from what keeps us bound to each other, beyond the political propaganda on all sides, away from the comfort of our algorithms, that the possibility of a collective is again possible. And only then can we start building on memories that can withstand social media and digital spaces; that can allow us again to imagine that we are part of a bigger public that has more in common than we care to admit.
That the burden of this work falls on those who have the privilege of time and space goes without saying—it is the nature of our citizenship, our sensing of our role in nation. That it is an urgent task is in this fact: collective memories—manufactured and nurtured, on Facebook or YouTube or TikTok, in conversations between grandparents and grandchildren, within communities—these can win elections.
We actually have our work cut out for us. If only we were ready to take it on.