Malcolm Gladwell’s latest piece in the New Yorker begins with a lengthy introduction on the genesis of the Greensboro sit-ins, an event that triggered hundreds of similar protests in the early 60s and proved a crucial turning point in the Civil Rights movement. After four paragraphs, he gets to the point:
These events in the early sixties became a civil-rights war that engulfed the South for the rest of the decade—and it happened without e-mail, texting, Facebook, or Twitter.
He goes on…
The evangelists of social media… seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960. “Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation,” Aaker and Smith write. But that’s not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.
He even takes the sword to Clay Shirky:
The story [of social media helping to return a stolen mobile phone], to Shirky, illustrates “the ease and speed with which a group can be mobilized for the right kind of cause” in the Internet age. Shirky considers this model of activism an upgrade. But it is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger.
The piece is well worth a read in full. It challenges a lot of the prevailing thought on the real-world impact of social media. And it makes fair points too – participation is indeed a lot easier (and less brave) online than offline, and the Internet can certainly augment the perception of social movements; creating an artificial impression of how large, and strong, they really are.
But throughout the piece, I couldn’t help noticing the elephant in Gladwell’s argument. Sure, social media might not be the perfect medium through which to make things happen. Indeed, sometimes it is a poor, inactive substitute – a placebo for armchair protesters. But Gladwell does not acknowledge Social Media’s passive role – in preventing things from happening.
These days, when someone messes up, the world knows about it pretty quickly. When a idiotic, homophobic column is written in a national newspaper, it becomes viral within minutes. When a racist politician is captured in all his thuggery, it spreads like wildfire.
Social Media acts as a fierce watchdog – a morally vital one- during a time when, to quote Roy Greenslade, the press has “muzzled itself and retired to the kennel to live off PR scraps.” While social media’s role in activating real social change might be overblown, its roll as a democratic, viral, participatory social regulator should not be underestimated.