“The revolution will not be Tweeted,” claims Malcolm Gladwell in this week’s issue of The New Yorker. Bringing us back to the early 1960s and the U.S. Civil Rights Movements, Gladwell writes that huge upheavals coming from social unrest that led to major change happened precisely because of a lack of texts, tweets, and Facebook friends. The social change mini-revolutions that happen today are smaller scale and have less impact than ones like the Civil Rights Movement due to the fact that the tools that drive them rely too heavily on the weak bonds between members of social networks. Further, being that online social activism is based on ease of participation — people end up making very little personal sacrifice, a necessary component of any social change movement.
Via flickr user david_shankbone (Creative Commons)
Gladwell seems to think that these aspects of social networking might have hindered the civil rights movement by decentralizing the authority of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the N.A.A.C.P., destabilizing the strong, in person bonds of the movement’s members, and letting people “participate” without having to make the huge sacrifices that were required to stage sit-ins, march, or speak out in public, risking abuse, jail time, and even death.
But what about the large scale social revolutions that are happening today?
Social networks don’t seem to have eliminated protests, even if it might be true that they are not being driven by them. Look at the extremely well organized students of Buenos Aires, Argentina who have essentially taken control of 30 city public schools to protest deteriorating conditions. These students became highly organized offline, inside their classrooms. But, when thousands of people gathered to march in the capital earlier this month, information was shared via social networks, increasing participation and pushing the protesters’ message to government officials and traditional media outlets.
Yes, movements that have a lasting societal impact are going to happen offline. For every hundred thousand people that “like” an initiative on Facebook, nothing is going to change unless at least a fraction of these people show up at rallies, donate, or vote in upcoming elections. But, didn’t only a fraction of people participate in the Civil Right’s Movement? Hopefully, the real power of social media is making information about a movement’s progress and how to participate more visible and accessible — hopefully increasing the percentage of people who will take things offline, and make real sacrifices for their cause.
[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]