Why did no one who gets paid for their opinion see Britain’s election result coming? Or Brexit? Or the Trump election? Perhaps everyone’s looking and listening in the wrong places.
Britain, like everywhere else in the capitalist world, is now a visual culture, as I showed in my book “How to See The World.” By “seeing,” I mean more than just looking. I mean coming to understand. Increasingly, people do that by means of visual media. Analysts raised on print and broadcast media often find that hard to do.
An election is like a giant snapshot of a country, what’s happening there and how it relates to other places. In 2017, that “selfie” of the country has become a video, complete with a soundtrack, in line with predictions that over 80 percent of internet traffic will be video by 2021. What can we see and hear in it?
The online election
People are trying to understand themselves and the world around them using unprecedented quantities of visual media. And now there’s a new connection between the online world and the material one we live in that’s being used to make social change. Think how Black Lives Matter used photographs and videos of police violence to create a social movement.
In Britain, there was an entire election online, using memes, Snaps, Instagrams, tweets and status updates that proved perhaps as influential as print and broadcast media with the young. While there are no exact figures yet, a significant increase in young voters was obvious.
Take one example. Snapchat users exchange 2.5 billion Snaps (cellphone photos with captions) every single day. But they disappear 10 seconds after being viewed, so mainstream reporters often have little choice but to ignore them. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn turned over his Snapchat account to star grime musician Jme, reaching a very different kind of voter.
Key internet analyst and venture capitalist Mary Meeker has seen this coming. Her Internet Trends report for 2017 stresses the “digital-physical feedback loop.” Her interest is in how to make people buy things. Others are now asking how can we use the internet to make social change.
After the attacks
Making a connection between current events and media response is not as simple as selling washing powder. It was casually assumed, for example, that the terrorist attack would benefit the Conservative government of Theresa May. In retrospect, given that her government had cut back the police and had been in charge at the time, this was too easy.
In the streets of London, there was very little response. Walking in the London Bridge area a day or so after the recent attacks, I was struck by how little there was to see. No armed soldiers. No metal detectors. Above all, the passersby were relaxed and casual, not nervous at all.
Yet in the media, tabloid newspapers described a chaotic horror that had transformed the country. “Enough is enough,” declared May.AP Photo/Sang Tan
“Keep Calm and Carry On” was the British World War II propaganda slogan that has become a global meme on T-shirts and posters worldwide. Should a modern-day Churchill – perhaps after seeing the new film bearing his name that’s everywhere in Britain now – panic in response to the attacks? Or would he have the British try to carry on regardless? The choice was a personal, almost psychological, decision that became profoundly political.
Corbyn choose to stay calm, refusing to respond to personal attacks in the media that labeled him the “terrorist’s friend.” And Labour rose in the polls after both the Manchester and London attacks, a trend that continued until the actual election.
In grime we trust
What’s happening here? It wasn’t simply that grime musicians supported Labour. The connection also reflects the changed global present. Grime mixes different musical traditions in a jagged set of rhythms with a spoken-word style of rapping. It’s about complexity and diversity, obviously closely related to hip-hop but with influences from jazz and Jamaican dance hall as well. It’s both very British and very global at once.
When Corbyn’s video interview with Jme went viral, it was because of its awkwardness, not despite it. Young people expect it to be a bit odd, talking to their elders. But just as grandparents often connect where parents fail, the key here was a new trust between generations.
‘You get me?’
Although Labour did far better than anticipated, Corbyn didn’t actually win power. After the attacks, a key issue for the future will be the place of young working-class Muslim men in British society. Photographer Mahtab Hussain uses his work to ask the question “You Get Me?” at the innovative Autograph ABP gallery in Shoreditch.
Hussain makes selfie-style portraits – but in full color, large scale, and high resolution. They show the diversity and complexity within this apparently singular identity. Men in high-fashion suits rather than religious dress. Boxing, football, fashion – all the classic British youth culture activities. But always under the cloud of suspicion that renders all Muslim men the same in the eyes of the dominant tabloid media.
“You get me?” is a casual phrase in British conversation, almost unnoticed. But it’s clear that mainstream media don’t get young Muslim British men or what to do about their frustrations and anxieties. Do “we,” whoever we are, do any better, Hussain asks?
‘We shout and shout but no one listens…’
If I saw anywhere that looked like it did “get” that future for Europe during the election week, it was in Copenhagen, an hour by plane from London. With cheap flights, young people travel around Europe the way people pop between states in the U.S.
I visted the Trampoline House, a volunteer refugee center that offers everything from food to English lessons, haircuts, legal support and table tennis. It’s a lively, welcoming place staffed by interns from all over Europe, with several from the U.K. – all funded primarily by targeted Facebook ads and private donations.
This is the world young people (and the young at heart) want to live in. Human-scaled but making a difference. Where to be international is just normal.
In the middle of Trampoline House is a tiny art gallery that attracts international star artists because of its unique location. The current exhibit – for which I wrote a short text – is called “We shout and shout but no one listens.” The quote is from Syrian refugee artist Khaled Barakeh, expressing the frustration seen in politics worldwide at present.
Look. Listen. Or you’ll be surprised next time, too.
Nicholas D. Mirzoeff does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.
Authors: Nicholas D. Mirzoeff, Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication, New York University