Monday, March 4, 2013
Can social media really create a revolution?
It's funny that this should be an assigned reading this week as it perfectly coincides with reading for another class. So basically, I will be comparing and contrasting the works of Dan Gillmore's two passages from We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, for the People and also "Small Change" by Malcolm Gladwell for the New Yorker.
Gillmore's view is very positive and pro citizen journalism in his 2004 writings. "From Tom Paine to Blogs and Beyond" lauds the internet as next great step in communication evolution: from newspapers to radio, then television and now the web. Gillmore is quick to draw the similarities of the web to early political pamphlets and writings that helped to fan the flames of revolution in colonial America, which the chapter of course takes its name from. Much as Tom Paine's Common Sense allowed him a voice and gave him the means to share his opinions, the internet does the same for numerous individuals without the constraints of owning a printing press. His views, I believe, however are a bit tinged by bias as he personally was involved in one of the stories he told about Joe Nacchio. Gillmore is writing this piece as a seasoned journalist and a pioneer in early blogging as a freelance writer.
In contrast, Malcolm Gladwell's piece "Small Change" for the New Yorker is a critique of all the hype about social media being the battlegrounds of revolution and points out that social media are inherently weak in the true connections and personal contact and therefore participants are asked to do less and less until what they are doing is trivialized. He uses the primary example of the sit-ins in Greensboro, NC in 1960 during the Civil Rights Movement as the basis for his argument. While the media is quick to praise the use of social media for the Arab Spring and other revolutions around the world, Gladwell counters that no movement the sit-ins in the 1960's could be done today because those participants in social media don't have a close-knit personal connection to a Facebook friend as they do with individuals they meet with face-to-face on a regular basis. He continues his barrage on the hype of social media in arguing that the perceived value of the use of Twitter in Iran and Moldova is really just that, perceived and not actually accurate whatsoever. He quotes Golnaz Esfandiari who wrote in Foreign Policy that :
"Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.” The cadre of prominent bloggers, like Andrew Sullivan, who championed the role of social media in Iran, Esfandiari continued, misunderstood the situation. “Western journalists who couldn’t reach—or didn’t bother reaching?—people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag #iranelection,” she wrote. “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.”
Gladwell also goes on to poke holes and make fun of some true "revolutions" that proponents of social media use as examples. The story of a Wall Street worker who lost his phone in a cab and his use of social media to get his phone back is almost laughable for a good "revolution" and Gladwell is right to point this out. Another story of a man who received a bone-marrow transplant and gets 25,000 people added to the national bone-marrow data base. The point that Gladwell is trying to make is that with little effort some seemingly trivial and easy to accomplish tasks can occur and positive things can happen. But is that really a revolution?
Without some sort of formal organization of individuals who meet face-to-face and collaborate and a system of hierarchy, social media does not and cannot equal what personal contact and strong ties give. He points out that the four young me who started the sit-in in 1960 knew each other well, went to high school together and now were going to college together. They had talked about doing the sit-ins for some time and were active participants in the N.A.A.C.P. who were informed about what was happening on the "battlegrounds" of the war. Gladwell also points out data from Stanford University sociologist Doug McAdam on the Mississippi Freedom Project of 1964. McAdam found that "What mattered more was an applicant’s degree of personal connection to the civil-rights movement. All the volunteers were required to provide a list of personal contacts—the people they wanted kept apprised of their activities—and participants were far more likely than dropouts to have close friends who were also going to Mississippi. High-risk activism, McAdam concluded, is a 'strong-tie' phenomenon."
I believe Gladwell is essentially right and Gillmore's point of view is biased because of his own personal involvement. Also, We the Media was written in 2004 where as Gladwell's "Small Change" is from 2010. I wonder if Gillmore still feels the same way today. Just as we've discussed in class many times, "clicktivism" has replaced traditional activism. Instead of actively participating in a charity event or actually attending a meeting people instead click "like" on Facebook, share a video, forward an e-mail or start following a Twitter feed and they feel they've done their part. It's really the least a person could do. But some how it gives the clictivist a sense that they've really "done" something. I think this is a scary trend. Simply reading analytics or metrics and doing some opinion polls is not really getting the true pulse of America. While social media can be used as a highly effective tool in organizing and communicating for events or organizations, until people actually put down the cell phone or step away from the laptop and actively DO something, a revolution can never occur.