Will the Revolution Be Tweeted? Striking the Right Balance with Social Media
The Social Network was definitely engaging. But if you didn’t know it before, Frank Rich nailed it: “You leave the movie with the sinking feeling that the democratic utopia breathlessly promised by Facebook and its Web brethren is already gone with the wind” (10/9) (“Facebook Politicians Are Not Your Friends “ )
And Gladwell wasn’t much fun either. He contrasts the traditional grass roots organizing of the early Civil Rights era with today’s Internet-charged activism. He praises the early 60s sit-ins as reflecting seriousness, fearlessness, commitment and tighter organization. There is a lot to learn from that era. You can go back to first-hand accounts like the late Howard Zinn’s 1964 SNCC: The New Abolitionists or check out many more recent studies.
My own sense is that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other initiatives had more of a mix of organization and creative spontaneity than Gladwell allows. By painting an over-simplified picture of the past, Gladwell tends to be overly dismissive of how we use on-line services today.
Among his other targets, Gladwell takes on Clay Shirky (Here Comes Everybody). Gladwell chastises Shirky for shifting from “organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability.” Well, maybe, to some extent. Endless cause-based activism just can just lead to …more cause-based activity. (For more on this topic, check out The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence )
Yet as so many nonprofits and advocacy groups have seen, the social media offer useful, low cost, low risk tools for organizing and activism. Yes, they cannot substitute for long-term planning, formulation of strategy, and organizational strength. Shirky doesn’t say that the social media are those things. I love his theme that the new communication tools reduce the friction of coordinating social change. They reduce the barrier of getting started, of experimenting and of failure. That is, a small—or large—entity can formulate a plan and try it out quickly. Today’s communication tools—free or low cost, Open Source, accessible to use—make a huge difference. Without substituting for organization, they enable those of limited organizational means to be lighter on their feet.
I’m sure that the advent of the printing press, transcontinental rail, telegraph or telephone had little to do with encouraging dissent or advocacy and everything to do with expanding business. Yet in their own way and in their day, they certainly also reduced the cost of coordinating the grass roots at a distance. Where Gladwell emphasizes the problems of weak ties and limited commitments, we can also see the ability of more people to make a start and try things out. What happens after that is where learning, strategy, and structure come in.
Among the many responses to Gladwell, I found much to like in Jeremy Brecher and Brendan Smith on Common Dreams. They take on Gladwell’s discussion of strong versus weak ties, hierarchy versus networks:
"As Gladwell indicates, ten thousand people sending each other tweets doth not a revolution make, or even major social change. Whatever else, significant social change requires, as Gandhi put it, "noncooperation" with the status quo and a "matching of forces" with those who would maintain it. Social networking cannot in itself provide either of these. But it can be a powerful tool for making such expressions of power possible. "
If the social media offer free or low cost activist tools, nothing stops those with financial resources from entering the game at a higher level. In this year’s election especially, we can the effects of corporate and well-financed Tea Party efforts at work in the new media. This brings me back to the Frank Rich’s NYT 10/9 column I mentioned earlier. Rich is unfortunately right that “The Internet in general and social networking in particular have done little, if anything, to hobble those pursuing power with such traditional means as big lies and big money.” In other words, if the social media are accessible adjuncts to grass roots activism, they also can be subject to mastery by well-funded conservative defenders of the status quo. Rich directs his wonderful ire at those who would hide behind social media efforts to avoid the public or distort public discourse.
What’s coming very quickly are sophisticated tools intended for corporations to monitor and attempt to out organize social media critics. Salesforce, for example, already offers tremendous tools for monitoring Facebook or Twitter. Absolutely, we see nonprofits evaluating use these tools as well, but there is no question that large corporations will use them more thoroughly.
Overall social media are here to stay as communication tools. If Gladwell’s article helps keep people from having illusions about how far they can reach on their own, great, but let’s get on with making them work for advocacy and the grass roots.
Trackback URL for this post: