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Monday, October 11, 2010

Will the revolution be tweeted?

The Twitter fail whale crosses the Delaware

Two recent articles have taken the social media to task for not delivering on the supposed idealized promises of revolution and change we all naively projected onto networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. 

One, Malcolm Gladwell’s extended essay for The New Yorker, focuses on the real versus perceived potential of weak-ties in social networking to produce real-world activism.  Gladwell examines certain social media behavior, such as the “fans” of the various Save Darfur pages on Facebook, where the average monetary contributions amount to spare change, and compares them to the real-world, high-risk activism of the anti-segregation lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960s.  Gladwell argues that monumental change is only possible in a top-down, hierarchically organized environment, such as those of the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which organized the sit-ins and boycotts that eventually helped end racial segregation.  In contrast, the weak-ties and peer-to-peer networks of the social media are not inherently capable of such organization.  The strength of those networks, Gladwell writes, “are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.”  Hence, you get hundreds of thousands of Facebook users “liking” Darfur, but on average donating less than a dime to the cause.  In other words, Facebook is good for keeping in touch with acquaintances that would otherwise be impossible to keep track of, but it is not good at getting people to turn out for demonstrations and protests where your life may be at risk. 

The second, Frank Rich’s recent New York Times column, expands on Gladwell’s criticisms, and draws a few tidy conclusions about the implications of the current rampant use of social media by politicians and celebrities.  While he applauds the rapid distribution of information across these peer-to-peer networks, with examples like George Allen’s YouTube “Maccaca Moment,” he laments the tendency for people to gravitate toward information that confirms their bias.  And, worse still, the commoditization of access has corrupted this brave new world, where candidates and politicians can buy Google ads, and hire marketing-savvy staffers to craft their internet-messaging, ghost-writing their tweets and Facebook status updates.  As Gladwell writes, social media was supposed to upend the traditional social order, giving the powerless an opportunity to confront the powerful.  In Rich’s examples, the dire conclusion is that social media has done little else but reinforce the old paradigms, where the masters of the universe continue controlling the zeitgeist, broadcasting their one-way conversations into the ether of virtual reality to be enthusiastically gobbled up and retweeted by their masses of followers. 

If these criticisms are valid, what can we do to salvage the value of social media in our own personal and professional lives?  Gladwell and Rich paint an ominous picture of a cynical social media landscape where none of our greater aspirations are fulfilled, and it would be folly not to heed their warnings.  But, what do we do to counter the specter of these dire predictions?

For one, we could conduct a little experiment.  If Gladwell believes that social media ties are too weak to lead to real-world activism, and are only good for low-risk interactions, then we have to respond by demonstrating the potential value of those low risk interactions. 

For example, Newswise is attending the upcoming PRSA International Conference in Washington D.C. (Oct 16-19).  If you are attending, comes stop by our booth, at #319, and introduce yourself to Newswise colleagues Zakira and Jessica, and tell them you’re a member of PRWise and saw this discussion. 

By pushing past the lowest-bar of participation, which has perhaps become the modus operandi of social media, and taking the conversation from online into real life, at the very least we reinforce those other values of social media, and potential expand them, however “weak” they are.  Even if PRWise won’t be leading any revolutions any time soon, we can still use social media to build relationships and improve our networking.

Posted by Thom Canalichio on 10/11/10 at 04:23 PM

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