Tunisia and Egypt have removed their long-entrenched autocratic rulers. Yemen is in upheaval, Libya has erupted only in the last 24 hours, and even Iran’s theocratic oligarchy is being threatened again by protests. The political, economic, and religious dimensions of these revolutions is beyond the expertise of our humble blog, but the revivified debate over the role of social media continues to intrigue.
The debate as to whether social media sites like Twitter have the ability to spur serious political change moved into public consciousness with the oft-cited article by Malcom Gladwell in last fall. In a nutshell: he found social media to be too vague and genteel a conduit to inspire people to make real effort for serious political change.
Do the events of the last few weeks across the Arab world disprove his argument?
Even if you never agreed with his point, surely you can appreciate Gladwell’s willingness to ask tough questions to those who simply assume social media equals substantive change. In the early days of the upheavals (as I write, the BBC is reporting escalating clashes in Bahrain!), Gladwell and Clay Shirky, Professor of New Media at New York University, engaged in a brief debate entitled “Do Social Media Make Protests Possible?”
Gladwell seems willing to ‘admit’ (my word) that social media can have an impact, though he still does not believe social media solved any real problem of communication or motivation:
The lesson here is that just because innovations in communications technology happen does not mean that they matter; or, to put it another way, in order for an innovation to make a real difference, it has to solve a problem that was actually a problem in the ﬁrst place. This is the question that I kept wondering about throughout Shirky’s essay-and that had motivated my New Yorker article on social media: What evidence is there that social revolutions in the pre-Internet era suffered from a lack of cutting-edge communications and organizational tools? In other words, did social media solve a problem that actually needed solving?
Sharky counters that even if no one is stirred from inaction to action via social media, that is to miss the point of social media:
I would break Gladwell’s question of whether social media solved a problem that actually needed solving into two parts: Do social media allow insurgents to adopt new strategies? And have those strategies ever been crucial? Here, the historical record of the last decade is unambiguous: yes, and yes.
Digital networks have acted as a massive positive supply shock to the cost and spread of information, to the ease and range of public speech by citizens, and to the speed and scale of group coordination. As Gladwell has noted elsewhere, these changes do not allow otherwise uncommitted groups to take effective political action. They do, however, allow committed groups to play by new rules.
Graham Webster, studying political science at the University of Washington, argues that the willingness of people like Gladwell and Sharky to give a bit of ground shows a new “cyber pragmatism.”
We have come back to the question of how political change happens, and technology no longer needs to be the center of the story. Even better, some are reasonably asking what we even mean by revolution, if technology is to be a part of it. Even the folks who think technology is pushing history are getting more careful, taking the focus away from specific applications and underlining the tradeoffs of online organizing.
We at MKCREATIVE have often spoken of the wonderful scalability of social media, and I would argue that scalability needs to be brought into this particular conversation as well. Surely the use of Twitter or texting did not create the uprising in Tahrir Square, Cairo. Nor did it move the unmotivated – points easily conceded to Gladwell.
But what has not been enough discussed is that a small group of highly motivated people (like, say, your nonprofit’s staff) can reach out to other highly motivated groups of people. Your group and that group probably have much stronger internal ties than could ever be created by social media alone.
What social media can then do – and do almost for free and almost instantaneously – is let your committed group and the other committed group(s) realize that each of your cells is not an isolated outpost but part of a larger community ready to bring change. If you are ready to commit to your group because of personal relations forged over (face-to-face) time, and that other group is willing to do the same for its members, social media provide the means to get both those committed groups to the same place at the same time.
By the unification of such cells can grow revolutions by any definition. Social media provide (for this generation, anyway) the most efficient and least expensive means to connect those cells.
Written by: Christopher Gardner, PhD