Posted by simon as Uncategorized
The silliest part of the social media zealots’ consternation over Malcolm Gladwell’s recent piece in the New Yorker is that it isn’t actually about social media. It’s about political activism.
Dramatic claims of the role of social media in political activism (such as the demonstrations in Tehran) don’t merely overstate the case, they dilute the entire notion of what real activism is.
Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes offers this rather pallid critique. He takes Gladwell to task for not defining social media networks which, in a statement of the crushingly obvious, he says are communications networks. Umm yeah, that’s the basis of Gladwell’s article; that’s all they are.
Hughes goes on to list the actions that communications networks facilitate: ‘liking’ on Facebook, ‘following’ on Twitter, and so on, and thereby showing the world that you are sympathetic to this or that issue. Yup, that’s about the strength of it – and that ain’t activism. No more than sporting a rainbow of coloured rubber bands on your wrist or buying the t-shirt is activism, except the rubber bands and the t-shirts do raise some dosh for the cause.
And then – and this is the bit where I punched my computer screen, “In the pre-social media world, there was no way to say publicly I support this cause.”
Twaddle. In the pre-social media world, when they weren’t afforded the conscience-salving expedient of adding a ‘twibbon’ to their ‘avatar’, real people talked and debated real issues with their living, breathing networks, of actual human beings, in pubs, clubs and coffee shops and across their dining room tables. And they argued with each other, fell out with each other and occasionally threw conveniently placed crockery at each other.
Social media networks, like any medium, create awareness. Sure social media technology also facilitates dialogue, but it also enables filtering which constrains real debate. It’s vaunted communities are loose knit with low, largely passive commitment. Being aware of or informed about an issue is a hell of a lot different than getting off your arse and doing something about it. And as Gladwell cogently argues, most real activism is motivated by some direct or indirect personal connection to the issue; having some ‘skin in the game’ as the internet entrepreneurs like to say.
The underlying implication that the profusion of illegible twibbons all over our tweetdecks and frenzied tweeting and facebooking from the comfort of our living rooms was somehow responsible for, or encouraging to the demonstrators in Tehran is patronising and odious. People don’t go into the streets and face down homicidal goons with guns because it’s neat or cool or seems to be thing that everyone’s doing these days. They do it because they believe they have no other choice but to risk their lives to create change.