I liked this story in its own right, but it has implications that we can all think about, if we aren't doing so already.  The story as published in the Swindon Advertiser (a local newspaper for the area around the English town of Swindon in Wiltshire) is that 8,000 bikers are going to ride through the town of Wootton Bassett on 'Mother's Day' (in the UK that is 14 March) as an act of respect for the service personnel who have been killed in Afghanistan, with a fund-raising angle to it too.  It started as a single teenager's idea, she put it on Facebook and suddenly hundreds and then thousands of people decided to join in.  The full story is at

 

http://www.swindonadvertiser.co.uk/news/4900928.Bikers_in_Mothers__...

 

This raises so many issues that we anthropologists could think about.  The first one that occurred to me was the power of the Internet (in this case Facebook).  Social networking sites are huge in passing information and ideas - in this case leading to what is going to look like mass action. This is new over the past few years: what implications does it have for human groups of any size?

 

The second is the ability of the media (and, in my view, therefore the people) to forget.  Whether it is factually completely accuate or not (I have no idea), the newspaper cites casualties in Afghanistan as the focus of the cause.  But what we British call the Falklands War was more costly in a much shorter time frame, and there are hundreds of wounded service personnel from Iraq still in need (they are the subject of separate charitable work so they are not neglected).  But apparently we can only think of one thing at a time so Afghanistan it is.

 

So, the power of the Internet spreads the news further and faster than ever before, but the collective memory for news (at least here in the UK) appears to be getting shorter and shorter.

 

What do you all think?

 

Charles

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Hello Charles,

Ive given your question(s) some thought:

I guess you are right on your second assumption - most people and societies in general do tend to forget very quickly, This mainly goes for ugly things in life such as wars, and especially the human loss and casualties as a natural follower of any military/guerrilla conflict. Which is very probably also the cause why the bikers rode their ride - to show the public that there can be no "clean" war, without losses and human casualties, and that the public shouldn't forget what is happening "out there".

Why Afghanistan and not the Falklands? --> as you suggest several years have passed since the Falkland-war ended, and I guess that the majority of frequent facebook-users are between 16-35 years of age, many of which don't or only vaguely remember the Falklands-war. Also, many of these are more or less a similar age as the fallen/wounded soldiers of Afghanistan, so I guess its easier to emotionally connect with them (via facebook-event-groups or otherwise). I'm not sure about this but its one possible answer. British casualties in Afghanistan are just about as high as those in the Falklands were (source:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_forces_casualties_in_Afghanistan), but as you know there's no end in sight, so demonstrations and solidarity-marches addressing this on-going conflict might seem to have more "necessity".
Why Afghanistan and not Iraq? This is a little harder to answer. Today, there are not many people who still defend the official initial causes to start the war on/in Iraq. Now, now more than ever, the Iraq-war lacks the (even if debatable) moral basis that the war against the Taliban still has in some parts of our society. This possibly make it easier to perceive the dead soldiers who died in Afghanistan as "heros" who died for a "just" cause.

Of course, whereas in Iraq the number of war-related casualties (including civilian) ranges between around 100.000 - 1.000.000 ( source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iraq_War#Casualty_estimates ) , "only" some several ten-thousands of men, women and children died as a direct cause of the Afghanistan-war (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_civilian_casualties_of_the_War...(2001–present) ). According to these statistics one might believe the media-focus on Afghanistan as a little misleading. But as NATO-casualties are dropping in Iraq and rising in Afghanistan, the western media focus has naturally altered its focus to the demands of its audience.


Back to your first question:
There are several interesting anthropological works on the power and attractiveness of facebook and other social networks out there Check out, e.g.:
http://www.antropologi.info/blog/anthropology/2009/dissertation_why... ,as well as
http://www.antropologi.info/blog/anthropology/2008/ethnographic_stu... ,
and the links provided.


Ben
The date for the bikers' ride through Wootton Bassett is next Sunday (14 March). So far 10,800 bikes have been registered, and 14,000 riders/pillion passengers. Each bike rider has agreed to pay £5 for the privilege, as a donation to a charity known as 'Afghan Heroes'. They will be assembling some distance from Wootton Bassett under some sort of marshalling control and released in batches of 2,000 during the day. It should be quite a spectacle, and all started by a single entry on Facebook.

Sounds interesting and inspiring? See it from the residents' of Wootton Bassett's angle in this newspaper report:

http://www.swindonadvertiser.co.uk/news/5052821.15_000_bikers_headi...

Assuming that this report actually reflects people's feelings (and I have some corroborative anecdotal evidence that it does), it reveals a tension between the broad sweep of popular opinion and the view from those affected. If something is big enough then ignore the locals... If it is newsworthy and in a 'good cause', then don't worry about those who actually live there...

Who is looking through the wrong end of the telescope?

Charles
Here is a news report on the event now it has happened.

The official voice of Wootton Bassett (the mayor) says that the occasion was welcomed by the those who live in Wootton Bassett. My friend who lives there says it wasn't. They are fed up with their iconic status as the place where the nation informally parades its grief at the military deaths and their support for British soldiers in Afghanistan.

Charles

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