The social upheaval that exploded in Tunisia and Egypt is spreading across the Arab World. At the time of this writing, dissent is snowballing in Libya, Bahrain and Iran.
In the wake of these extraordinary events, a myriad of discussions on the role the Internet and the social web has emerged. Cyber-utopians are praising Twitter and Facebook to the heavens; cyber-sceptics are pooh-poohing the contribution of social networks in spawning social change.
While I would never use ‘Twitter revolution’ or ‘Facebook revolution’ to describe these social uprisings, I would also neither dismiss nor trivialise the role of social media in social transformation. Social media is not the alpha and omega of causes and revolutions, but it is an inherent part of this generation’s politicisation and experience of social change. Instead of simply shrugging it off, real critics (and not cynics) should call for a more thorough review of how exactly the social web was used by the groups and organisations behind these movements just like what the Meta-Activism Project is doing.
Social media allergy
I’m struck, though, by the growing allergy to the idea that social platforms can help carry out democratic change. It’s one thing to cast a critical eye and not romanticise this notion, but it’s a totally different story to be cynical and outright dismissive. Evgeny Morozov author of ‘The Net Delusion’, and Malcolm Gladwell, author of ‘The Tipping Point’, lead the cyber-pessimist school of thought. Gladwell, for example, asserts that revolutions have happened before when there were no Twitter, Facebook or the Internet, and thus how the protesters “…choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.” In his widely-read and contentious article, “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted,” Gladwell underscored how inconsequential social media is compared to ‘real’ activism because it creates little more than “weak ties” between people, which he claims, ‘…seldom lead to high risk activism.”
Radicalisation of networks
I think Gladwell and company miss the point. Focusing on the tools is the last thing one should consider in social media. The ‘social’ is more important than the ‘media’. And the ‘social’ is harder to do. It’s ultimately about the people and how they use social tools to support their cause. In social media, the ‘how’ merges with the ‘why’: the medium is the message.
Yes, revolutions have come and gone before, and have used different tools to promote its cause, but that doesn’t mean that today’s tools used by today’s generation of activists are less instrumental in birthing democratic changes. The fact that the digital technologies of this age are social, real-time, decentralised and distributed means people in different places can connect with each other and synchronise their actions, in simple and fast ways, and in a widely-distributed manner. This makes it possible to connect weak ties with the strong ties and transform weak ties into stronger ones. Moreover, the instance of connecting weak ties and making them stronger becomes a politicising agent for the people that get connected — spectators become engaged, strangers sympathise, organisations form alliances and the story of protest becomes more intimate. That’s the power of social networks. And the more people there are who start to use these structures that harness network effects, the better these networks will be.
Thus, the more important question for me is not whether the social web breeds revolutions, but if it possesses the radical potential to stoke the flames of revolutions.
And, yes, it does.
Stowe Boyd perspicuously explains the radical potential of social media through the notion of ‘social density’.
“Ideas spread more rapidly in densely connected social networks. So tools that increase the density of social connection are instrumental to the changes that spread.”
“When people are connected to a large number of other people through a real-time social medium like Twitter, information and ideas will travel faster across the population than when people are connected to a smaller number of people. And, more importantly, increased density of information flow (the number of times that people hear things) and of the emotional density (as individuals experience others’ perceptions about events, or ‘social contextualization’) leads to a increased likelihood of radicalization: when people decide to join the revolution instead of watching it.”
Social media’s radical potential
Since the Iranian elections protests in 2009-2010, the social web’s level of politicisation has matured, and we along with it. It’s changing the terrain of political struggle between, what Clay Shirky calls, the ‘incumbents’ and the ‘insurgents’. It’s disruptive as it has the potential to subvert the rules of the game. Shirky points out: “Digital [and social] 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.” Social media helps “…synchronize the behavior of groups quickly, cheaply, and publicly, in ways that were unavailable as recently as a decade ago…” thereby allowing “…insurgents to play by different rules than incumbents.”
Social media’s radical potential is, thus, brought to life — set free from its digital interface and breathing in disquiet in the streets of dissent. This has made the world stop and take notice, and governments to take (both positive and negative) action.
Which is why I don’t get the dismissive attitude by the cyber-cynics and their resorting to dichotomising off- and online / analogue and digital efforts. It’s like demanding that social media become the panacea for all social ills, otherwise, it doesn’t merit recognition of its role in promoting change. However, the discourse isn’t just about Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or any single social network. It’s about the social web as a whole — the people, their experiences and emotions and ability to connect and sympathise — and how it provides a venue for digital activism to flourish. Again, Shirky succinctly points out: “No one claims social media makes people angry enough to act [but] it helps angry people coordinate their actions.”
Social media demands new strategies – not just for an uprising – but for after
A revolution is not just the few minutes of protests, dispersals, or rejoicing that we see on TV. To really know the impact of social media’s role in engendering social change, we have to look at how it was used and how it developed before, during, and after the mass uprisings. Real-life conflicts, dissent and struggles — decades of repression — fuel revolutions, but these are also the same stuff that feed the digital passions of movements that choose to harness the radical potential of the social web. This doesn’t and shouldn’t negate the capability of social media to influence movements. It’s a connection, not a contradiction. We have to see and appreciate this integration between off- and online arenas of political struggle in order to fully appreciate the radical potential of social media. While the debate on the political impact of social media now revolves around mass uprisings, we shouldn’t forget that the true challenge for the social web is how it can best support “… civil society and the public sphere — which will produce change over years and decades, not weeks or months.”
It goes without saying that the social web’s radical potential can only be fully realised within organised and committed groups. As any authentic activist know, social and community structures are critical to strengthening commitment to change and sustaining mobilisation. What counts for Nowtopian struggles can also be said of the radical social web: “It has to emerge from daily practices among communities of human beings who trust each other and can take action together—in immediate practical ways as much as in far-reaching global ways.”