[สำหรับฉบับแปลภาษาไทย “ผ่านเพื่อน: การเมืองกับห้องแห่งเสียงสะท้อนของชนวัยเยาว์” คลิกที่นี่.]
[Photo: Thus Prinyaknit]
“If you wanna leave, just tell me.”
“I’m having a headache now. Shall we–”
“Yes, of course.”
Amid the sound of singing supporters, some swaying and some standing still, with occasional efforts of cheers and applause, we tentatively and quietly walked out of the crowd into streets after streets, finding a way back to our car. Small talk was necessary now. What a savior can it be amid occasional intricate silence.
“You know, I didn’t plan all of this, but I think I’m gonna interview you.”
“What? For your paper?”
“Yes, can I?”
“Yeah, but will Queen1 understand me?”
“Of course, let’s just see it as our normal conversation.”
A trace of a sheepish smile played across her lips. She, or my dear friend Tao, always has that body language and social cues of an insecure and unassertive girl but often can plunge straight into such a deep conversation and radical political discussion. “I do want violence. I do want it, but, as you said, a public image of Thanatorn as such an educated and civilized politician can be greatly destroyed once he acts as a protest leader. A demonstration is always aligned with radicalism, and that’s perhaps not what he wants to project himself.” Sitting silently behind the wheel, I would occasionally utter those words, “Exactly,” “Yes”, “Agree” or some personal thoughts backing up those of her defensive analysis, and for the first five minutes, I was almost convinced that tonight’s gathering in front of Thai Summit Tower, on 21st February after a declaration of Future Forward Party’s dissolution, meant something to us or produced even the slightest degree of encouragement until Tao, after having taken a long pause for a while, softly inquired out of the blue, “Do you feel quite depressed?” that I realized how, for five minutes, we had constructed ourselves a necessary short drama performance of such a spirited and triumphant activism to comfort our own mind and each other. “What are we doing here, huh?”, muttered she whose fingers were flickering relentlessly over her iPhone’s screen, “I don’t know what’s happening, but too many people are retweeting my tweet right now and I’m freaking out.” I forced a humorless laugh and replied, “We’re just two lost teenagers trying to fight something we don’t know anything about.”
To Tao, this Friday night was supposed to be a time of her mid-term revision, “I was hesitant,” said she who was asked to express her first thoughts of being invited to a political gathering, which was her first time and so was mine, “not because I didn’t want to go, but because of all the obligations and the approaching mid-term examination, but I knew I wanted to come. I do.”
“There’s it! Professor Piyabutr!” I found myself almost screaming as we were approaching and driving through Thai Summit Tower. It took us almost two hours to get here from Rangsit, not because of traffic, but because of an idiot Google Map, “fuck, there’s no parking.”
“Just go straight!” demanded my dear little friend who now turned into a sort of relentless commander. Being unable to afford a loss of even a single moment of participation now, I lowered a car window just to hear outside sound. The noise of cheers and applause went straight into and filled up our car. A surging sense of hope mingled with exhilaration washed over us, and almost like a cinematic scene, our hands met in the middle of the air. Placing another hand of her upon mine, Tao gave me a radiant smile, and I returned mine.
“I just feel nothing. Of course, there were a certain number of people, but don’t you think it was quite small compared to the issue’s level of severity? And the crowd was not energetic at all. It just–it projected no sense of power or encouragement,” an offstage, honest conversation began to take its shape, “I am just disappointed,” she said softly and almost apologetically, and I remember vividly how I felt so related to her sense of disappointment. “Me too. It’s just so sad. Or is it normal for a political gathering to be somewhat awkward?”, inquired I of Tao as well as perhaps more of myself. “Were others feeling the same way?”, continued I. There was no answer, not that I seemed to hope to acquire one. An abrupt, empty silence filled up the car, and I let out a long, deep breath; I was tired. “The highway road is so wide. Why is it so wide?” A serious tone of her question propelled me to give a certain answer. “There are many cars,” replied I, “So many cars.”
Re-listening to our whole conversation again and again through the voice memo, however, gave me an important opportunity to reevaluate our whole perspectives and experiences and some significant insights into our own mentality and certain impacts upon the creation of that particular mentality that shape our perspectives to certain circumstances and our world. When Tao regards that Thanatorn’s political crowd was not “energetic” and “projected no sense of power or encouragement,” it made me wonder what sort of a decent standard Tao, as well as I myself, applied Thanatorn’s political crowd to, given that none of us ever before went to a political gathering or demonstration. How can we articulate our strong disappointment and disapproval of Thanatorn’s unenergetic crowd when our political experience apparently fell short of any standard. How can Tao know such a sense of “being energetic”, “power”, or “encouragement” in an environment of political gathering? Where does such articulation spring from?
“How are things going? Are they still there?”I asked anxiously.
“Yep. Thanatorn just tweeted he was going to be on stage in minutes.”
A blue light from Tao’s Twitter screen illuminated her own face and an area within the boundary of her seat.
“Okay, this is enough. I’m freaking out. They just don’t stop retweeting my tweet. What should I do?”
“How many retweets now?”
“Almost three thousand.”
“You’ll be fine. They just agree with you.”
“How is this happening? I have like only 53 followers.”
“Perhaps because I retweeted yours.”
“It’s not my fault that others happen to like your tweet too!”
For the past few years, particularly during under Prayuth’s government, Twitter usage in Thailand does not function itself as merely a social platform anymore but increasingly a political one. By speaking of a political one, I mean not merely a place of political discussion, but a place of political participation, social movement, and activism. Each day among popular hashtags one or two concerns political and social issues, and each user participates as not merely a speaker in that circle of discussion but as a dissenter and a protestor in that virtual demonstration that, to some issues, takes place 24 hours. Its status as a political platform becomes increasingly apparent. One of its outrageous hashtags, “#royalmotorcade”, which “topped Thailand’s trending list on Twitter several times” eventually led to a change and improvement in Thailand’s traffic rules regarding the closure of roads during royal motorcades (Sivasomboon, 2020). The number of studies also reported similar findings of how social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, can greatly contribute to political discourse and participation (Ahmad et al, 2019). “If I don’t reply to your message or you cannot find me anywhere, come find me on Twitter,” said once Tao jokingly yet quite truthfully during our discussion of how she has become a sort of “a protestor” on Twitter. When Tao said, “I’ve never been to a political demonstration before,” that is hence not entirely true: she did and perhaps did more than anyone of us, and that, wittingly or unwittingly, seems to become a standard of her political experience.
There, in countless political demonstrations on Twitter climates and manners of political discourse and participation greatly differ from physical ones. “Context collapse,” one of its most significant ambient natures, defined broadly as a climate where “disparate audiences being conjoined into one” (Gil-Lopez et al, 2018), occurs as a fundamental pillar that enables and sustains that possibility of Twitter, as well as other social media platforms, as a comfortable place of both social and political gathering. Context collapse, to put it simply, refers to a fundamental situation in an online place, particularly Twitter, where social boundaries between individuals collapse, and a required sense of appropriateness is mitigated. That is, each different or similar discourse can coexist and collide with each other without a sense of oddity, and most of the time users are not even aware of such a different social context in front of them, but unconsciously perceives such as his or own same “single context” (Brandtzaeg & Lüders, et al, 2018). The particular point I try to make here is that such a “flattening of multiple audiences into a single context” (Brandtzaeg & Lüders, et al, 2018) is rich in its ability to produce and enforce a sense of collectivity within a particular group or discourse, and when mingled with an “echo chamber”, another significant online environment where, as a result of a platform’s algorithm and features such as a retweet, “a person encounters only beliefs or opinions that coincide with their own, so that their existing views are reinforced and alternative ideas are not considered” (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary), a collective sense of identity and discourse is even more enforced and intensified. The problem here does not lie in its ability of political efficacy, but in its nourishment of a collective mentality as a single, possible way to be engaged in political participation. The mentality of young people, whose online presence is more of his or her own identity than even a real-life one, is so attached to and dependent on a sense of collectivity that once entering a physical political circumstance and finding oneself amid all strangers–amid a wall of necessary “context” and requirement of appropriateness–he or she can often accordingly find themselves alienated and stripped out of that ability to acquire a sense of collectivity which is of great power and importance for them to be actively engaged in political participation. “What did you feel when you raised your three fingers in the air?” inquired I of Tao whose obsession with her retweet panic was not yet mitigated.
“To be honest, I think it’s quite embarrassing, so awkward, and so strange. I don’t understand why some didn’t raise theirs too. If all did, perhaps it might not feel that strange.”
Our mentality of collectivity as a single form of power rips apart our ability to demonstrate individual courage and bravery. Of course, when one tweets a certain opinion, one does so in his/her own timeline, which seems to be an act of individual power, but taking into account its ambient nature of context collapse and echo chamber, one is aware that any narrative ones produce automatically belongs to his/her desired single context and narrative. A mechanism of collectivity is constantly activated and operated whether one bothers to acknowledge it or not.
“You wanna raise fingers?” said I after a long moment of awkwardly standing still amid flickering shadows of three fingers in front and behind.
“I think we should.”
“Well, then, do it.”
[photo: Juthamas Suksod]
Inside an echo chamber also lies not only a unified agreement but also a necessary bubble of contentment and satisfaction. To establish and sustain such an echo chamber–such a unified agreement–is not a simple task; it is not merely that each similarly utters, “Oh, I agree with you” or “Hey, you’d better agree with me” that keeps an echo chamber alive, but, “Hey, look at this particular story–”, “Look at that–”, “Listen to this story–”, “Here is evidence–”, “I feel so–”, etc. Inside an echo chamber, therefore, a selected narrative is a must, and not simply any narrative–not merely an intelligible one–but necessarily a tellable one. It is a place of vigorous tellability: each contests to produce each tellable story to attract each other. This means that each must be aware of which type of story is tellable at a particular given time, and during 21st February night, for example, a narrative of empowerment and inspiration occurs as a pattern. There is, of course, a narrative of depression involved, but the most tellable pattern during that Friday night is a sentiment of hope and chance. Each account user, whether to be an individual or an organization, produces an empowering narrative of FFW’s political gathering that night in front of Thai Summit Town. Zooming in for a close-up of our face is necessary now, for zooming out can reveal how there were so few of us and instantly change that desired sentiment. Story of Thanatorn’s daughter was repeatedly recounted throughout the night with an occasional surge of admiration and satisfaction. Reality there in front of Thai Summit Tower, however, was quite the opposite. It was not that there was no sense of empowerment or inspiration, but outside an echo chamber, I can say that one stands at no more a one-dimensional but a three-dimensional position. When Tao proclaimed, “What’s it that we are fighting for? What is it to fight here?”, for indeed the third time during our discussion, I was aware it was no more a question, but a statement of depression and hopelessness projected itself out of one’s own sense of shock as just springing naively from one-dimension participation to a 360-degree harsh reality, “I wonder how many people were there, like exactly–a hundred?”, and for many times during our way back to Rangist, I wanted to delete a tweet of my own that invited others to be there, for at least within that echo chamber, I thought, there was hope although it was quite a bubble.
“Sis, but why is it so different from Skywalk flash mob? I thought it would be more pervasive and significant given its degree of severity. Of course, I didn’t go to Skywalk, but judging from those pictures, I can see that there were more people and more energetic sentiments. Don’t you think?”
“Yeah,” said I, “but, how can we be sure?”
“Be sure of what?”
“Of the success of Skywalk.”
“I don’t know, but at least I think it’s more successful than here,” replied Tao softly, and my mind wandered off to when I felt such a huge relief and hope when I similarly perceived that sentiment of Skywalk flash mob on Twitter.
When we were approaching there and driving through Thai Summit Tower, our Twitter-activist mentality was not yet ripped apart. A blurred figure of Professor Piyabutr and a distant noise of his cheering crowd gave us an opportunity to fill up our own gap of imagination. Our hands met in the middle of air not because of a reality we perceived there, but of the desired perception of such a reality we had already accumulated and established long before at our house, college, restaurant, or everywhere in which there is a smartphone and Internet with us. When a sort of reality there was not aligned with what we had naively accumulated, our world shattered; an echo chamber was pierced through. Of course, Twitter or any other platform is still rich in its political efficacy. Surely, our political participation there can and must be continued, but perhaps with a little realization and adjustment that enables a possibility where cultivation of individualistic mentality and a 360-degree narrative, including those of our opposing views, can be established, incorporated and nourished. Of course, under current Thailand’s political circumstance, a sense of relief and hope is required, but it is of great importance for any young activists or anyone to make sure that his or her sense of hope is not merely to nourish her hope bubble that can lead to a cycle of stasis, passivity, and inability to encounter and overcome the harsh reality of revolution journey.
“People are quoting my tweets now. What should I do? What if those are ‘Slims’? Oh, what if together they come to abuse me!”
Her tweet was probably now getting more than 9,000 retweets, spreading itself over other chambers. All eyes, from a 360-degree viewpoint, were on her.
“Honey, you will be fine.”
“How did you do? Were you freaking out too when this kind of thing happened? I’m so worried.”
“I was afraid too, but it’ll get better.”
“Help me, Ploy. You know I’m fragile.”
“I know,” l laughed, “but, really, you’ll be fine.”
“Oh, go away, Slims,” she was yelling out over her Twitter screen, “Go go go go away!”
She is learning, and so am I.
Busaba Sivasomboon . (2020, January 13). Thailand eases royal motorcade rules to unblock traffic. Retrieved from https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/thailand-eases-royal-motorcade-rules-unblock-traffic-68241078
Ahmad, T., Alvi, A., & Ittefaq, M. (2019). The Use of Social Media on Political Participation Among University Students: An Analysis of Survey Results From Rural Pakistan. SAGE Open, 9(3), 215824401986448. https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244019864484
Brandtzaeg, P. B., & Lüders, M. (2018). Time Collapse in Social Media: Extending the Context Collapse. Social Media + Society, 4(1), 205630511876334. https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305118763349
Gil-Lopez, T., Shen, C., Benefield, G. A., Palomares, N. A., Kosinski, M., & Stillwell, D. (2018). One Size Fits All: Context Collapse, Self-Presentation Strategies and Language Styles on Facebook. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 23(3), 127–145. https://doi.org/10.1093/jcmc/zmy006
Hampton, K. N., Shin, I., & Lu, W. (2016). Social media and political discussion: when online presence silences offline conversation. Information, Communication & Society, 20(7), 1090–1107. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118x.2016.1218526
Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. (n.d.). Echo-chamber, Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary . Retrieved from https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/echo-chamber
This English language article was originally a submitted classroom paper in “Literary Non-fiction” course of the English Language and Literature Program, Faculty of Arts, Thammasat University. Its Thai translation was provided later for this same occasion of publishing online in Aan.