In hindsight, social change is remembered in watershed moments like mass protests, legislative breakthroughs, and independence days. Gal Beckerman’s The Quiet Before is a book about social change that shies away from the fanfare of those events, attentive instead to how groups of people come together and share ideas in those long stretches of time before change gains the solidity of a defined shape and structure. Beckerman amasses a wide-ranging and eclectic array of anecdotes: His book opens with a retelling of how, in 1635, the French astronomer Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc coordinated a dozen observers stationed in places as disparate as Egypt, Quebec, and the Netherlands to collect data on the lunar eclipse. The aim was to confirm longitude with greater precision, which would allow Peiresc to calculate the exact length and width of the Mediterranean Sea. This endeavor—which involved pestering his participants with months of sustained letter-writing and assiduous instruction—is significant, for Beckerman, because it represented the assembly of a global, cross-denominational network organized according to the logic of the scientific method. In an era when Galileo was being persecuted for heresy, Peiresc’s prolific written correspondence was an enactment of a new worldly sensibility that would become a hallmark of the Enlightenment.
Other of Beckerman’s examples include how collecting petition signatures allowed the Chartists—who agitated in early 19th-century Britain to expand the vote to all men, regardless of their property-owning status—to build solidarity among the British working class, and how an editor’s solicitation of op-eds from diffuse contributors to publish in a daily newspaper sparked the beginnings of a national consciousness in Ghana. But as Beckerman moves closer to the present day, he argues that social media platforms that prize immediacy and ever-larger audiences have decimated the intimate spaces where ideas “incubate.” It’s still possible to build the right networks and find the right corners where things can be hashed out, but only if we remember that the process of seeking change can be as influential as the change we seek.
There’s also a double meaning, in that half the book looks at the pre-digital age of communication, ranging from letters to zines. That’s another sort of “quiet before”—before the huge, very public, very loud and performative platforms that we communicate on in our public sphere took over.
JL: I read many of your case studies as illustrations of people who were working within certain historical constraints in terms of what kinds of communication systems were feasible—some of them working in very repressive environments. Yet somehow, they’re also taking advantage of these restraints in certain ways and making them their own. How do you think about that dynamic in terms of the communication forms that you survey throughout the book?
GB: That’s one of the ironies I discovered, looking both historically and over the last 10 to 15 years with the Internet’s role in all of this. If we think that small, secluded, huddled spaces are important for strategizing, arguing, imagining, and lowering the bar a little bit so people can express themselves in ways that are freer because they’re not worried about being shamed on a big public stage, then being suppressed, not having access to a bigger bullhorn, not being able to publish whatever you want, actually has a weird kind of benefit.
Something that is a perfect example of this is the Soviet uses of samizdat, when citizens could not use typewriters because that was dangerous and the state was keeping track of who owned which typewriter. They found ways around that, but publishing in the entire empire was totally monopolized by the state. The only way that they could circulate their own ideas and begin to share information and have any kind of their own currency was to make something they had to create on their own, in this smaller, more hushed way. It was really effective and important for them to have that outlet.
Similarly, in a twisted way, when you look at the members of the extreme right now and the ways they’re pushed off the larger platforms (rightly so, because their ideas are so noxious and disgusting), they find these deep holes to crawl into where they do some of this same work by necessity, because they don’t have anywhere else to communicate. It can actually really help them refine their ideas and figure out how to get their message out. I have a chapter in the book on the lead-up to Charlottesville and the rally that happened there in 2017. I was able to peek in on some of these closed spaces that these folks were using on Discord. It was remarkable how attuned they were to optics: They were trying to figure out how to bring more people on board with their ideology. As a place for strategy, planning things, and aligning, it was really important for them, and most of it happened because they didn’t have anywhere else to go.
JL: That chapter was such an interesting one. We typically think about members of the alt-right as intransigent in their beliefs. But you show that the group did a lot of negotiation work to bring together this strange, motley crew. What lessons can we learn from that?
GB: It was the one chance I had to peek in on what a closed space looks like for a movement. They were very self-aware about how they were perceived by the outside world. They knew that they had to change certain aspects of their presentation to bring along more people. They were obsessed with the Proud Boys—a group, at the time, that was on the borderline of the mainstream—and figuring out “How do we get those people to come to our party? What do we have to do to adjust ourselves to get a sizable group of people to join the protest?” You saw all that negotiation, shaving down of ideology, compromising. They needed a place where they could get on the same page about what sort of message they wanted to put out in the world. What they were trying to do seemed quite effective. I had many moments where I thought: This could be a really useful place for, say, Black Lives Matter activists—many of whom, for instance, have ideas about reforming the police that take a very hard line, in terms of defunding completely or abolishing the police. A lot of them are facing communities at the local level who are not ready to envision a world without cops. That friction needs a place to be worked out—a place to say, “Let’s brainstorm here about different ways we can approach people in the community with different visions of community-led safety that we can discuss.”
That just can’t happen on Twitter; it’s too exposed and vulnerable. So where does it happen? If it doesn’t happen at all, these movements are denying themselves a really important communication tool.
JL: Part of what you’re suggesting is that this repression sometimes refines people’s ideas, because they’re not speaking to everyone and no one at the same time.
GB: Yes, that’s true. And where does that leave us? I don’t want to suggest that only people who are repressed somehow can come up with radical new ideas for remaking society—I want to say the opposite. We’ve come to associate these ideas that are generated in small, private spaces with fringe movements and groups—whether it’s ISIS or the extreme right, the worst antisocial elements are what we’ve come to associate with seclusion. I want to suggest that no, if you look historically, those dark corners where people are hiding and whispering among themselves are also where some of the most progressive ideas first emerged. I want to fight back against the idea that those spaces are only for the people who can’t get on Twitter. They’re not. They should be for Black Lives Matter activists and environmental justice activists, as long as they understand the balance between using a space like that, someplace quiet and secluded, and how to use the bullhorn of social media as well.
JL: Hyper-inclusivity can be wrong at a certain stage of a movement.
GB: The Black Lives Matter activists I talked to were the ones who most expressed this point. They said that in moments of hyper-visibility and hyper-attention, when some hashtag goes viral, all these people rush into the movement who just want to tear things down. It’s a wonderful energy to take advantage of and direct toward productive ends. But it can also be extremely overwhelming if you don’t have a separate space for just the people you know you are on the same page with. I’m not saying that it should be an echo chamber, but it has to be a place where people feel safe to share ideas, to fail a little bit, to refine strategies, and to work in a more concentrated, focused way.
JL: Maybe organizing for change is as much about the process of how that change is fought for, in terms of what kinds of networks and communication habits are being developed.
GB: There’s a whole line of media theory tracing back to Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s and his famous dictum that “the medium is the message,” which essentially means that whatever form of communication you’re using has the ability to shape how you think, because it determines which type of speech act is allowed and which is foreclosed. I think there’s a lot to that. It’s gone out of style because it can seem too technologically deterministic—it gives a lot of power to the forms of communication themselves. We’ve come to think in terms of power, and who has control over the ability to speak and to be heard. That’s obviously an important question too. Still, we are contorting ourselves to fit the demands of the mediums that we use.
We know this in our personal lives; we know that the type of expression that we can have on Facebook or Twitter is molded by the incentive structure of that particular medium. If you’re saying something on Twitter, you’re aware that there is a “like” button—that you’re shaping what you say to conform to the demands of that particular platform and what’s going to get you a lot of attention. That means not saying the thing that might have a bit of nuance to it. You’re trying to elicit some kind of emotional response from other people, and it’s a very performative place to communicate.
We also know these platforms are owned by private companies that have an incentive for us to communicate in a certain way. We even know what it means for our democracy—that it’s created much more division and exacerbated expressions of outrage. But when it comes to social movements, I think the idea that all you need is a viral hashtag to change a conversation persists.
In the book, I argue that there’s a cost to overly relying on the platforms to do that kind of work, because they also make movements match the rhythm and the cadence of social media itself. They make movements chase after attention-grabbing slogans rather than do the hard, patient, more private organizing work that in the long run of history manages to change concrete structures of reality.
JL: Despite our pressing awareness of the harms of social media in our current cultural moment, the very first example you include about virtual space is more utopian. Could you discuss WELL? How do we build more intimate spaces and retool our relationship with virtual communication?
GB: The WELL [Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link] was pre-Internet. People dialed into a modem based in San Francisco. Many of those involved in it had previously created the Whole Earth Catalog, which was a magazine for people who were building communes off the grid that listed tools they might need, like composting toilets, geodesic domes, and books that could be helpful for growing your own tomatoes. That same community of people got excited about the communication tool that connected computers could provide, so they built this message board where people were able to chat in real time in the mid-’80s. The people who were manning it were people who lived on communes and were imagining this as a space that would be extremely productive for them socially. They didn’t quite build it to make change in the world, but they saw it as having revolutionary potential. That community was about a few thousand people at most.
Right away, they understood what we’ve come to understand about the Internet: that there is something about disembodied speech that can push people to not be their best selves and get contentious very quickly—because you’re not sitting in front of somebody, following the same social norms that you would if you were actually seeing them face-to-face. So they built guardrails into the structure of how the WELL worked to help counterbalance some of that.
We emerged from the early years of the Internet with this romantic idea that it’s a tool of endless possibility and connection—that all you need is for people to start talking and finding one another, and all the flowers from it will bloom. We forgot the part where they needed to kick people out early on; they had trolls from day one. They had to establish some pretty definite rules: There were moderators who were overseeing these conversations—pulling people aside and saying, “Cool it with that sort of language.” They knew that they needed to meet in real life occasionally so they could be grounded in reality when they talked. I wanted to put that example in the book because it felt like a good way of orienting the reader toward what was to come: the weird disconnect between what we imagined these tools could do and the reality of how to use them so that they actually prove productive for us.
JL: Where you leave off in the epilogue is that it’s not only that certain mediums of communication are literally slow, but that these ideas and the change that might happen can also take root slowly or even lie dormant. How has your research changed how you think about change?
GB: The nature of change is always incremental and involves three steps forward, two steps back. That can sound like a wet blanket, but it’s the reality of how change actually works. It’s important to not let that be demoralizing. The sooner we accept that, the easier it will be to gird ourselves for how long these battles can be—and how, even when we can’t see the end product, we still have to keep working towards it.