Monday, March 11, 2013

Faster and faster - social media's role in revolution

This article by Clay Shirky is the direct argument to the conversation we've had in class about "clicktivism" a number of times. Where we've seen how lazy social media can make the user, we've neglected to think about the exact opposite reaction. Instead of doing less, imagine if everybody who clicked "like" actually took enough interest to mobilize and actually DO something. Shirky argues in "Faster and Faster" that social media actually allows very loosely connected individuals to coordinate and organize which originated with the flash mob but became a real tool for revolution.

Shirky takes us on a brief history lesson in arguing his point about mobilization and the evolution of social media. He begins in 1989 and the protests in Liepzig, Germany. This grass-roots collective initially began meeting at events where people would already be attending in large numbers, so their numbers wouldn't be noticed. Here Shirky fails to mention the networking capabilities that this group had at these events, which I thought would have added to the story, perhaps. Since his group is at a large event, it's the perfect place to prosthelytize their message to the masses. But I digress. These meeting then evolved to take place every Monday at the same public place. This went on for months without the intervention of the police. Shirky touches on shrewd awareness and the idea of that "everybody knows that everybody knows that everybody knows". This basically means that as public awareness of a problem stretches beyond self, friends, neighborhoods, etc that a sense of communal awareness and consciousness occurs. By the time word from the state responded to the protests the gatherings were 400,000 strong. Sentiment grew and grew until it was too late for Erich Honecker to crush the rebellion, as it were. He was forced out of office in October of 1989 and replaced by Egon Krenz. The next step in evolution comes in 2003 with the birth of the flash mob. Technology has now allowed the dissemination of the message instead of relying on media to gain recognition. Now, via website, text message, Facebook, Twitter and any other means of social media, we can send out a message across the world in seconds. This has allowed activist groups a great tool that is hard to control and predict. Authorities can see who viewed the message, but they have no way of knowing who will show up.  A great example of this is given by Shirky in the 2006 protests in Belarus where police arrested citizens assembled eating ice cream, smiling and reading en mass. Also in 2006, passengers of a Northwest flight that was delayed organized and got legislation giving passengers rights.  Students protested HSBC bank's changing in policy and a Facebook rally got them to reverse their decision in 2007. Social media's impact can probably be best seen in the organizations of millions during the Arab Spring which began in late 2010. The use of Twitter, Facebook and other social media in Egypt, Syria, Saudia Arabia, et al rallied protesters and brought about democracy to many nations. Finally, Shirky zips back in time for an example from WWII and the use of radios in German tanks. During their blitzkrieg attacks, German tank units used radios to communicate which gave them a great advantage over their enemies.

In the end, Shirky shows us how now that media is essentially free (without having to buy a printing press to get your message out) via the internet and social media sites, political activists, consumer groups and others can use the web to organize and create a positive change when there is a cause that people actually and truly believe enough in to do something and take action.

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