For those who were sure that Twitter, Facebook and the realtime web could either manufacture or replace personal qualities such as being courageous, determined, selfless, disciplined, steadfast, and having a charismatic ability to inspire and lead others in moments of great historical importance, I’ve got some bad news. It turns out that’s not case.
In his recent New Yorker piece, Small Change, Malcolm Gladwell argues that the social web does not fundamentally change the nature of revolutions. As an example, he describes the Civil Rights sit-ins that began in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960.
By the end of the month, there were sit-ins throughout the South, as far west as Texas. “I asked every student I met what the first day of the sitdowns had been like on his campus,” the political theorist Michael Walzer wrote in Dissent. “The answer was always the same: ‘It was like a fever. Everyone wanted to go.’ ” Some seventy thousand students eventually took part. Thousands were arrested and untold thousands more radicalized. These events in the early sixties became a civil-rights war that engulfed the South for the rest of the decade—and it happened without e-mail, texting, Facebook, or Twitter.
Yes, folks. The Civil Rights movement took place at a time before Twitter. For those scoring at home, the same is true for every notable historical movement from the Big Bang through the release of Destiny Child’s Bootlylicious video.
The realtime, social web is clearly not a required element to organize and execute a high impact revolution. Neither is a megaphone, but it sure makes it easier for the folks in the back to hear you.
Gladwell goes on to argue that that Facebook and Twitter create a kind of connectedness that is ultimately the opposite of what’s required for true activism.
The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life … The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.
I don’t know about you, but my Facebook and Twitter communities are made up of both weak-ties and strong ones. I have several family members and best friends with whom I share an online connection. I would label them as strong ties. I also share online content with many people who I’ve never met.
Ultimately, it seems a bit foolish to separate our online and offline relationships into these defined buckets. The lines are clearly blurred. Our online worlds are an extension of our offline lives.
What’s the point of arguing that a communications platform doesn’t replace the personal and group characteristics required for activism? Of course Twitter and Facebook can no more do that than could two cans attached by a string. But it seems equally absurd to argue that communicating through the most modern channels will somehow erase those activism-driving traits.
I almost convinced my fellow member of an oppressed group to join me in the struggle for equal rights but in the end he was turned off by my decision to use a telephone instead of a fax machine. So he left me stranded at the lunch-counter and decided to join Greenpeace.
After losing his entire family as teen during the Holocaust, my dad hid in a barn that was being searched by soldiers. When they left, he escaped and spent months alone in the forest and on the run during a particularly cold Polish winter. I’m convinced he would have derived little benefit from publishing a pithy tweet or unliking the Nazis on Facebook. But when he joined the Partisans, I assume they would’ve appreciated any improved modes of communication.
The most important moment in my dad’s youth was when he got his first gun. Did that gun give him the guts, smarts and determination required to survive World War II? No. But it sure provided an effective channel through which to express those traits.
Activism does not require technology. And technology doesn’t stop activism.
As our minds evolve along with these new technologies, the key connection between social media and revolutions will likely be a matter of focus. You will know about a lot more causes in the world. And you’ll have a more efficient medium through which to share information about those causes. But it will become increasingly difficult to focus intensely on one or two issues while blocking out the rest of the noise.
Gladwell touches upon this point as he complains about the limitations of our social networked connections:
It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo. If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you. But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause.
But again, that’s an oversimplified conclusion that places too much weight on the method of communication at the expense of what is being communicated. Of course Facebook is not the enemy of the status quo. Neither is the landline telephone I have in my house. People, not technologies, are enemies of the status quo. And enabling those people to communicate more effectively is probably not going to win a lot of fans among repressive regime stakeholders.
Ultimately our communication channels are one step removed from our personal experience and any inherent weaknesses in the technology are beside the point. If you’re sitting at a lunch counter in Greensboro and someone tells you to go, it’s probably not going to matter a whole lot which iPhone model is in your pocket.