Social media and revolution

I finally had a chance to read Malcolm Gladwell’s article on social media. He argues that social media cannot revolutionize the world. He disputes a popular beliefs that social media is a new tool for social activism. He points out two specific reasons why social media cannot be a tool for social revolution. First, he correctly points out that a key characteristics of social media is “not asking too much.” As we often hear, instead of asking million dollar donation from five wealthy donors, a politician now can ask for a dollar from five million people. Popularity in YouTube, the “Like” button on Facebook, and “RT” of Twitter are all examples of not-asking-too-much. Gladwell notes that “[A]tivism that challenges the status quo — that attacks deeply rooted problems — is not for the faint of heart.” In other words, a real revolution requires sacrifice and dedication. He further argues that such dedication can only come from a strong-tie, formed in real friendship. Second, according to Gladwell, a revolution requires disciplines and strategy, which he argues social media cannot provide. He argues that discipline and strategy can only come from a hierarchy.

Despite some obvious flaws in his arguments (for example, the notion that discipline and strategy cannot come from social media, thus, a revolution requires a hierarchy, is simply not true. One should not treat all networks as equal. Some networks, particularly with a strong central node, can have characteristics that resemble a hierarchy. It is just that the commands are not coming from the top; they are coming from the center of the network), I am intrigued by his bigger point: social media will not revolutionize the status quo. He ends his essay by quoting a story from a book, “Here Comes Everybody”. In that story, a Wall Streeter used social media on the Internet to track down, shame, and eventually catch a teenager from Queens who stole his smart phone.

Shirky ends the story of the lost Sidekick by asking, portentously, “What happens next?”—no doubt imagining future waves of digital protesters. But he has already answered the question. What happens next is more of the same. A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls. Viva la revolución.

The story reminds me of a panel that I was on with a CIO of a large multinational company a couple years ago. A person from the audience asked, “When are we going to see the use of social media, like Facebook and Twitter, in Corporate America?” Without a missing a beat, the CIO responded, “Oh, yeah. It is coming. We are working on it. We are testing all forms of new technologies.” However, I was much more skeptical. I responded to that reply by noting that the use of social media in an organization should be likened to the political revolutions in the 18th century that ended monarchy and led to the emergence of democracy. Just like democracy was a different kind of idea on how to govern people, social media represents a different kind idea on how to share information and knowledge. Therefore, one cannot and should not expect to see the proliferation of the real use of social media without expecting the transfer of power. That means, those who are in power will feel threatened; they will try to block the free flow of information and persecute those who promote the free flow of information through the use of social media. Just like people shed blood and lost their lives then, people will loose their jobs and careers will be ruined now. Only if those who challenge the powerful succeed, only then will we see the real revolution in organizations with social media. Until then, social media will be only used to re-affirm the current power structure. Those who are already in power will continue to exercise their power, using newly acquired propaganda machine — social media — only to re-affirm the current social structures.

p.s. I wrote this one last November only never to publish it as I was hoping to revise it further. Since then, we had Wikileaks, Tunisia and Egypt. Here are couple of my random reactions to those events.

Thought 1: What happened with Wikileaks shows that those in power will persecute those who try to use the power of social media to challenge the status quo.

Thought 2: What Egyptian government did with the Internet shows that no government should be allowed to control the Internet.

Thought 3: What is happening in Egypt and Tunisia show that social media can challenge the established social structures, even those as powerful as Egyptian government, only when people are willing to risk their lives. Young Egyptians did not just twitted. They marched on the street.

Professor | Writer | Teacher Digital Innovation, Design, Organizational Genetics Case Western Reserve University

One thought on “Social media and revolution

  1. I would add a structural point. Social media are about people connecting. Despite court rulings to the contrary, companies are not people and will not act like people.

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