How social becomes anti-local becomes anti-social …

I tweeted this early on today, as I suggested to Tesco Chester that it might want to do its bit to help local producers:

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If we’re honest, there are many supermarkets out there now – all with problems common across all retail sectors: how to properly differentiate oneself from the very similar competition …

How easy, then, would it be if one of them decided not just to source from British farmers but Cheshire farmers – even Chester farmers?

Or, indeed, wherever they found themselves, from producers local to their many and multiple locations?

Of course, the conditions would have to be right: payment terms; the right to occupy hotspots at reasonable costs; equitable return conditions etc.

But any supermarket which was looking to reacquire the support – even affection – of its customers in such a cut-throat environment could hardly do worse than go down such a route.

Whilst we’re on the subject, I’m puzzled by one thing greatly: how the #buylocal/#shoplocal movement – admirable in almost every single respect (except where it becomes a battlecry for mandatory exclusion of external influences and cultures) – should have taken so gladly, essentially so blithely, to the globalising frameworks of Twitter and, in particular, Facebook. There was, in fact, never a global company less local:

In early 2011, Facebook announced plans to move to its new headquarters, the former Sun Microsystems campus in Menlo Park.[133]

All users outside of the US and Canada have a contract with Facebook’s Irish subsidiary “Facebook Ireland Limited”. This allows Facebook to avoid US taxes for all users in Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa and South America. Facebook is making use of the Double Irish arrangement which allows it to pay just about 2-3% corporation tax on all international revenue.[134]

Now I’m not criticising Facebook for such arrangements: in fact, it’s my firm belief, already expressed elsewhere, that we need to change overarching legal frameworks so that all companies can enjoy level playing-fields, and simultaneously come to the table of global sustainability.

Where I do find there is a massive contradiction, however, is in the #buylocal/#shoplocal movement – and its fulsome embrace of such global services as those which Zuckerberg’s corporation provides.

For in truth, if a website – or online community – built and developed locally is the virtual equivalent of buying your vegetables from your mate with an allotment, then Facebook is the equivalent of a hypermarket franchise which cares little for the niceties and virtues of leafy and individualistic suburbs. And just as a powerful hypermarket chain can force small producers to take or leave its conditions of business, so the Facebooks of this world similarly engage in practices which remind us of the Melian dialogue (more from yours truly here). Arguments such as the ones which appear below:

The Athenians, in a frank and matter-of-fact manner, offer the Melians an ultimatum: surrender and pay tribute to Athens, or be destroyed.

The Melians argue that they are a neutral city and not an enemy, so Athens has no need to crush them. The Athenians counter that, if they accept the Melians’ neutrality and independence, they would look weak: people would think they spared Melos because they were not strong enough to conquer it.

The Melians argue that an invasion will alarm the other neutral Greek states, who will become hostile to Athens for fear of being invaded themselves. The Athenians counter that the Greek states on the mainland are unlikely to act this way. It is the more volatile island states and the subjects they have already conquered that are more likely to take up arms against Athens.

The Melians argue that it would be shameful and cowardly of them to submit without a fight. In Thucydides’ account, “If such hazards are taken by you to keep your empire and by your subjects to escape it, we who are still free would show ourselves great cowards and weaklings if we failed to face everything that comes rather than submit to slavery.”[5] The Athenians counter that the debate is not about honour but about self-preservation.

The Melians argue that though the Athenians are far stronger, there is still a chance they could win. The Athenians counter that only the strong have a right to indulge in hope; the weak Melians are hopelessly outnumbered.

The Melians state that they also refuse because they believe they have the assistance of the gods. Thucydides recounts, “We trust that the gods will give us fortune as good as yours, because we are standing for what is right against what is wrong.”[6] The Athenians counter that gods and men alike respect strength over moral arguments, summarising this in the famous dictum that, “The strong do as they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

The Melians insist that their Spartan kin will come to their defence. The Athenians argue that the Spartans have nothing to gain and a lot to lose by coming to the Melians’ aid – mere kinship will not motivate them.

The Athenians then conclude the argument by saying there is no shame in submitting to a stronger enemy. The Melians do not change their minds and politely dismiss the envoys.

In a parallel way, I suppose, this is how social becomes anti-local becomes anti-social – at least for the communities which really do not understand exactly how they have already submitted to a stronger opposition than they ever could be.

But as always, I am of a mind to square circles in these matters. If Tesco Chester could see itself to providing aisles for local produce – not just British produce but Cestrian, I mean! – why couldn’t the Facebooks of the world do something similar in a virtual context?

No. Local isn’t giving someone random access to a page which can be whisked away from you when someone in the censorship terms & conditions department suddenly decides it’s time to exert their power. That’s not local.

Local would properly involve ceding control over:

  • what is made permissible
  • what is made possible
  • what is communicated
  • and, ultimately, who really benefits

If transnationals ever want to regain the support, comprehension and trust of those currently drifting off into circles of understandable localism, they’ll need to do a helluva lot more to convince us they really care.

And that goes for the Facebooks, Googles, Microsofts and Twitters just as much as it does for the Tescos, Sainsburys, Morrisons, Aldis and Wal-Marts.

All of which we tend to forget.

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