Twitter, big media and the war of the flea

The war of the flea was the first book I read on military doctrine, and even though I was only 13 or so at the time, its central thinking has stayed with me.

It was written in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, as the US in particular was struggling to understand how the world’s most powerful military nation could fail to dominate territory largely occupied by what it saw as a low-tech, barefoot army.

The ideas in the book were new and controversial at the time (despite similar situations dating back to the Boer War) but are widely accepted these days. Victory does not always fall to the most powerful. God is not always, despite Voltaire’s frequently quoted assertion, on the side of the bigger battalion. This isn’t a column about military doctrine, though. It’s a column about the power shift in media.

It’s popular to assume, despite everything that’s changed in the last 20 years, that the mainstream media – broadcast and print, mainly – still occupies a privileged position. I spend a part of my time in that world. I have a weekend radio show, write for magazines now and then and appear on TV when asked. Most of the time, though, my media life is online. For every paid word in print, I’ve posted a thousand on Facebook and tens of thousands on Twitter. While I visit Big Media fairly frequently, my media homeland is a digital one. And as I move between these worlds it’s clear that the advantage is not with the dog, but with the flea.

It’s easy to believe the power sits with the big battalions. The bank you’re ranting about on Facebook. The airline that you sent that nasty tweet to when they wouldn’t let you board when you arrived late. The newspaper, radio station or media award you’re demanding advertisers boycott.

But there is no bank, no airline and no newspaper. Your tweets, posts and comments aren’t read by companies or by computers; they’re read by people. People who have nowhere near the power to respond that you have to complain, criticize or abuse.

Angry of Glenfield can say what he likes. He doesn’t have a boss, a social media policy he has to stick to, or a legal department insisting his tweets or posts are run past them before publishing. He won’t lose his job and suddenly find himself unable to feed his children. The flea can do what it likes. And most of the time, the dog can’t bite back.

The real power, unconstrained and uncensored by anything but common sense and conscience, sits with the tweeter, the Facebook commenter and the blogger. The power is with the flea. Don’t just use it wisely. Use it kindly. ×