Much Noise, To Little Effect

The val­ue and impor­tance of “social media” and “social net­works” con­tin­ue to be major top­ics in all sorts of dis­course com­mu­ni­ties these days. Friend and fel­low blog­ger Andrew Miller drew my atten­tion today to a recent essay by Mal­colm Glad­well (“Small Change: Why the Rev­o­lu­tion Will Not Be Tweet­ed,” The New York­er, 4 Octo­ber 2010) which throws some pret­ty hard stones at some of the most impor­tant claims made in recent years by apol­o­gists of Twit­ter, Face­book, and the like.

I won’t rehash Gladwell’s piece, because I think he presents his case pret­ty con­vinc­ing­ly. He sketch­es the still-remark­able large-scale orga­ni­za­tion of the 1960’s Civ­il Rights Move­ment, and con­trasts it with the easy con­nec­tiv­i­ty of today’s dig­i­tal soci­ety. As Glad­well sees it, the par­tic­i­pants in the Civ­il Rights efforts had much to lose per­son­al­ly: their bod­i­ly safe­ty was unques­tion­ably in jeop­ardy because of their involve­ment, and those that per­se­vered did so in part because they had oth­er peo­ple they knew per­son­al­ly also com­mit­ted to work­ing to fur­ther the cause of jus­tice.

He does not see the much-tout­ed pow­er of Twit­ter to orga­nize the forces of pop­u­lar democ­ra­cy as all it is made out to be, and cer­tain­ly not the equal of what those ear­li­er orga­nized efforts were capa­ble of. He puts this large­ly down to the very dif­fer­ent struc­tur­al real­i­ties in play: the Civ­il Rights efforts were orga­nized in a very hier­ar­chi­cal fash­ion, while the social net­works of today are inher­ent­ly devoid of any hier­ar­chy. This is both their beau­ty and, when it comes to mean­ing­ful activism, their weak­ness. “Because net­works don’t have a cen­tral­ized lead­er­ship struc­ture and clear lines of author­i­ty,” Glad­well writes, “they have real dif­fi­cul­ty reach­ing con­sen­sus and set­ting goals. They can’t think strate­gi­cal­ly; they are chron­i­cal­ly prone to con­flict and error. How do you make dif­fi­cult choic­es about tac­tics or strat­e­gy or philo­soph­i­cal direc­tion when every­one has an equal say?” The same chal­lenges, in short, that face ide­o­log­i­cal anar­chists when they gath­er in com­mu­ni­ties. Con­sen­sus is a noble goal, but bit­ter­ly hard to achieve in any siz­able group: a lam­en­ta­ble facet of the human con­di­tion.

So there is cer­tain­ly pow­er in social net­works: the pow­er to eas­i­ly con­nect hun­dreds, thou­sands, even mil­lions in a star­tling short span of time. But those con­nec­tions can evap­o­rate as quick­ly as they came into being, and it will only be if they can be forged into and alloyed with oth­er ele­ments of suc­cess­ful pop­u­lar move­ments of recent his­to­ry that these net­works can tru­ly be said to have the pow­er to alter the polit­i­cal land­scape. With­out that, are you like­ly to stand before a fir­ing squad next to some­one you fol­low on Twit­ter?

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