Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Not So Fast, Facebook

Malcolm Gladwell threw a Molotov cocktail at the social media mavens in this week’s New Yorker, comparing the civil rights activism of the 60s to the “Twitter Revolution” in Moldova, and its role in the recent Iranian election unrest. He finds the claims of digital impact a little too smug:
Donating bone marrow isn’t a trivial matter. But it doesn’t involve financial or personal risk; it doesn’t mean spending a summer being chased by armed men in pickup trucks. It doesn’t require that you confront socially entrenched norms and practices. In fact, it’s the kind of commitment that will bring only social acknowledgment and praise.

The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they 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.

...the second crucial distinction between traditional activism and its online variant: social media are not about...hierarchical organization. Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies. Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren’t controlled by a single central authority. Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose...

Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, 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 drawbacks of networks scarcely matter if the network isn’t interested in systemic change—if it just wants to frighten or humiliate or make a splash—or if it doesn’t need to think strategically. But if you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy. The Montgomery bus boycott required the participation of tens of thousands of people who depended on public transit to get to and from work each day. It lasted a year. In order to persuade those people to stay true to the cause, the boycott’s organizers tasked each local black church with maintaining morale, and put together a free alternative private carpool service, with forty-eight dispatchers and forty-two pickup stations. Even the White Citizens Council, King later said, conceded that the carpool system moved with “military precision.” By the time King came to Birmingham, for the climactic showdown with Police Commissioner Eugene (Bull) Connor, he had a budget of a million dollars, and a hundred full-time staff members on the ground, divided into operational units. The operation itself was divided into steadily escalating phases, mapped out in advance. Support was maintained through consecutive mass meetings rotating from church to church around the city.

Boycotts and sit-ins and nonviolent confrontations—which were the weapons of choice for the civil-rights movement—are high-risk strategies. They leave little room for conflict and error. The moment even one protester deviates from the script and responds to provocation, the moral legitimacy of the entire protest is compromised. Enthusiasts for social media would no doubt have us believe that King’s task in Birmingham would have been made infinitely easier had he been able to communicate with his followers through Facebook, and contented himself with tweets from a Birmingham jail. But networks are messy: think of the ceaseless pattern of correction and revision, amendment and debate, that characterizes Wikipedia. If Martin Luther King, Jr., had tried to do a wiki-boycott in Montgomery, he would have been steamrollered by the white power structure. And of what use would a digital communication tool be in a town where ninety-eight per cent of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church? The things that King needed in Birmingham—discipline and strategy—were things that online social media cannot provide.
And as if to reiterate and illustrate Gladwell’s point, there was this exchange on Morning Edition today, after Borzou Daragahi reported on the recent arrest of Hossein Derakhshan, who was credited with starting the blogging “revolution” in Iran in the 90s, and who, despite his tech svvy with social media, now finds himself sitting in an Iranian prison:
Borzou Daragahi: (I think that it) shows the fallacy that through blogging and the internet and Twitter and so on that you can go up against a powerful state that has so many tools at its disposal, and it suggests that perhaps this idea that using this new media to effect political change is kind of a fallacy, and that you really need a real political organization and not just a bunch of loose-knit activists on the web.

Steve Inskeep: Because the government can come and get you in the end.

Borzou Daragahi: The government can come and get you, can manipulate you, can keep tabs on you.
Using Gladwell's comparison, go on to compare the current (mostly under-the-radar) union organizing being done by and for some of our poorest, most disenfranchised workers to how African-Americans (and whites) were organized during the civil rights movement. Try to imagine doing such organizing via social media instead of by using the sweat and strong-tie commitments needed for bringing such vulnerable populations together in a meaningful way...and then maybe you can understand the problems liberals are having making real change in the political system. We blow off steam on blogs, or Twitter, or Facebook, to others who are no different from us, and think ourselves great citizens for e-mailing a letter or electronically signing a petition. Meanwhile, organized corporate hierarchies continue to call the shots.

The government is going to come and get us in the end.