What a difference a year can make – not always for the better, mind you. But in today’s post we see grounds for optimism when it comes to the development of social networks and of social movements through those networks as they force political and economic change.
Last fall we wrote about the The New Yorker magazine that social media gives us an inflated sense of social and political engagement when, in fact, little changes. His argument was that though social networks are critical for social change those networks must be personal, not virtual, and the ‘friends’ must be willing to put themselves in a high-risk situation – something that a retweet does not require. He contrasted the revolutions of Moldova and Iran in 2009 (and largely unsuccessful) with the civil-rights movement that began at a Woolworths lunch counter in Greensboro, NC in 1960.of Malcom Gladwell, who wrote in
But what about now that dictators have fallen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and perhaps Syria – and the ‘Occupy Wall Street’this past weekend?
To be sure, the revolutions noted above and the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations should not be put on the same level of engagement or change – yet. A young man committed suicide in Tunis, which inspired the brooding resentment of a nation and then a region against nepotistic, corrupt, and inept dictatorships. The initial reactions Mohammed al-Azizi’s friends and family seem to support Gladwell’s case that only those with vested and personal ties with one another will risk their livelihoods, if not their lives, to bring change.
Yet the Tunisian uprising continued to grow, then spread to Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, and Libya – with unequal (or as yet unclear) results. These nations had their own dynamics and grievances, but social media bonded these movements and inspired them with shared stories and updated posts far beyond their connection to the tragic death of a beaten Tunisian months earlier.
And now the so-called 99% who began the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York back in mid-September have found kindred spirits in cities throughout North and South America, Europe, and the western Asian continent. That the globalization of the movement has been spread by the universally accessible media of Twitter, Facebook, and the like can be demonstrated by the .
To be sure, banking and political interests are listening to the SM conversations to try to find trends in the beehive of information output. What they can do to circumscribe the movement is less clear, as many more who get the messages support the cause than wish to halt it. Indeed, as ever more platforms expand beyond their nations of origin ( , has just expanded from England to France and Germany with plans to open sites throughout Europe next year), they are likely to bring ideas with them, and the opportunity to feed movements across borders.
The impact of the rebellions and revolutions of 2011 can not yet be clearly assessed. But the ways they spread and supported each other can, and social-media platforms were pivotal. The opportunity to open accounts (anonymously, if necessary) for free and to pass on information almost instantaneously not only draws together like-minded activists but also frees them up from the drudgery of photocopying pamphlets and telephoning individuals. They can spend more energy on making the blood ties that Gladwell argued were necessary for real change – even as he slighted social media’s abilities to develop those ties.