Monday, October 11, 2010

The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted (or Friended)

Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker:

The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, co├Ârdinate, and give voice to their concerns.

"Without Twitter the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confident to stand up for freedom and democracy,” Mark Pfeifle, a former national-security adviser, later wrote, calling for Twitter to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Lord. I remember those breathless days of "Twitter is upending the Iranian government!" The whole reason I opened an account was to follow the so-called Twitter Revolution, only to be amazed at the lack of veracity and verifiability of the tweets. The media covered them as if they were sure of their origin, but there was no way to verify it. How did we know they were coming from the streets of Tehran and not from some 40 year old loser living in his parent's basement?
These are strong, and puzzling, claims. In the Iranian case, meanwhile, the people tweeting about the demonstrations were almost all in the West. Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.

The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like [the 1960's civil rights activism] at all. 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 evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960. “Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation,” Aaker and Smith write. But that’s not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece. Help Save Darfur has 2,797 members, who have given, on average, fifteen cents.
In other words, Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.
It's a lot like checkbook charity, minus the checkbook. People can feel all socially gooey by saying "Oh, I'm all about stopping the genocide" because they sign up for a Stop the Genocide page on Facebook. Just a click of the "Like" button and you've saved a life and "done your part," right?
Enthusiasts for social media would no doubt have us believe that King’s task in Birmingham would have been made infinitely easier had he been able to communicate with his followers through Facebook, and contented himself with tweets from a Birmingham jail. But networks are messy: think of the ceaseless pattern of correction and revision, amendment and debate, that characterizes Wikipedia. If Martin Luther King, Jr., had tried to do a wiki-boycott in Montgomery, he would have been steamrollered by the white power structure.
Can you imagine reading the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" on Facebook? So and so "Likes" this. Or the comments? "Hahahaha, injustice is such a drag! Civil Rights are awesome!" or "Are you the same Martin Luther King who went to Central High School? OMG, you were hot!" wink, smiley emoticon, etc

I think Gladwell is exactly dead-on. I'm on Twitter, but recognize it for what it's worth: entertainment...pure, simple and nothing more. And I've certainly dished out my share of Facebook bashing over the past few years and caught grief over it (I actually had a dude unfollow me or whatever you call it on Twitter because my fb flippancy "missed the point,").

But I still stand by my assertions: there is no revolution going on on Facebook, save for the fact that it gives 500 million people a chance to re-connect with old high school friends and troll for new/old nookie. And the revolution of Twitter is that it makes long-winded people like me get to the point. But redeeming social value? Real social revolution? Snicker.

If nothing else, as Gladwell points out, all this social media has given the power-elite in society precisely what it wants: an even more insidious form of social control over you and what you are doing day to day. Long before a revolution gets launched on facebook or twitter, someone at central command will have shut you down and disappeared you
r account.

We won't even have time to LOL over it, I predict.

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