You have a problem. The world has been struck a savage blow by the wave of economic collapse. Dour ministers are announcing cuts to benefits, housing and culture. Your local town green is being sold off for housing. What do you do?
Well you could go round door to door, petition in hand and hope you get enough signatures. Of course to do so you’d need vast amounts of free time or a really dedicated team of volunteers. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem such a good idea to wander blindly into this.
You decide that getting the word around is the best course of action and so you write to the local paper. That will drum up some support but you still lack the numbers you need to have any hope of forcing the council to reconsider. In a moment of brilliance you create a Facebook group, send out all invites to all your friends asking them to do the same and let the message branch out to virtually everyone in the town.
Huzzah! You’ve saved the green so beloved by the locals from the council’s avarice. You send out a message to your many members: “We’ll be manning the conference room of the town hall all day tomorrow with the petition so be sure to come and sign!” The day comes around; around half the people in your group let you down and it looks like those houses will be going up after all.
Though this anecdote is more than a tad melodramatic, it brings up a serious point. A problem arises when one tries to convert the realms of the digital into something tangible. Malcolm Gladwell concludes in his recent, rather scathing article that this is because the network system that is typical of social media activism is defined by its ‘weak ties’.
By comparison, real life activists are often strongly involved in the matter for which they are protesting, which creates ‘strong ties’. Gladwell argues that: ‘activism that changes the status quo- that attacks the deeply rooted problems- is not for the faint of heart’ due to the higher risk factors involved.
The problem with this criticism is that it implies that physical action is a requisite of change. In actuality, the largest effect of most demonstrations is to attract publicity and draw attention to the cause in the hope that it will cause the public to reflect upon the issues. Social networks can generate the very same buzz that causes change and can arguably do so in a far more effective manner because of their interactive nature which allows anyone to be involved in the issue.
Gladwell admonishes the social networking community for wanting to only be e-activists but never actually establishes why anything more is needed. In the increasingly politicised and opinionated world that the internet is playing a large part in forming, the catalyst of change is public opinion.
The MP expenses scandal in Britain is a prime example of how public outrage is enough to cause reform. There was no great march or sit in, but the sheer fury of the everyday people-stirred on by various discussion and protest groups on social networks- demanded change.
The same can be said for proposed road taxes which were torn to shreds by a large petition on the Downing Street website. It proved that an e-petition is a very effective expression of public feeling and last year an impressive 15% of Internet users signed one.
Before one gets carried away in a fervor of social media hype, it’s important to acknowledge the other factors at work. It is arguable that the British media played the large roles in both these examples however, as the Daily Telegraph brought the issue to light before running issue after issue of damning figures and comments from appalled citizens and numerous papers brought petition into the public eye by featuring it.
This raises a key question: are social networks themselves, like most physical protest groups, not enough to bring about change on their own; do they need a centralised force to lead them, coordinate their feelings in a unified form and then stir up interest in the public?
Gladwell posits that though social networks are able to publicise their own beliefs very effectively through blogging and tweeting, they are ineffectual at creating the cohesion needed to build momentum on a scale that is wide enough to force reflection. This is due to the democratic nature of their being, which often means that they will always remain a loosely affiliated group of individuals rather than a collective mass, and as such will be vulnerable to fractitious forms of protest; their protest will take the form of a number of insignificant projects rather than a single effective one.
This argument is flawed in two main ways. Firstly, it assumes that a singular drive is most effective at drawing attention to itself and making an impact on the public mind. This is not necessarily true, after all a multifaceted approach which involves people of several levels is surely at least equal to one which is focussed on one method because it is engaging on a variety of fronts.
For example, if one were to want to protest the recent proposal to give tax breaks to married couples, would a single, large march invoke more public thought than a number of localised protests? The modern world is a rather homogenising place and, as advertisers have keenly picked up on, people like to targeted individually because it gives them a feeling of unique worth. If a campaigner feels that their contribution is important then they are often motivated to try harder and put more effort in because they can see the correlation between their action and the general results. At the very least, a localised approach seems to be of as much merit as a centralised one.
Secondly, it rather underestimates the work that individuals can do when given a focal point by one of their peers. A certain internet group by the name of Anonymous begs to disagree with this. They have carried out multiple, highly effective campaigns against organisations they believe to be idiotic or morally wrong such as the infamous Denial of Service on the Australian government in Feburary 2010 as a protest against stringent new Internet laws.
Whilst anonymous often indulge in illegal activity, they are an amazing example of how efficient online communities can be when they care about a cause.
They didn’t need a leader to have 4chan’s creator ‘moot’ voted as the world’s most influential person of 2008 in an internet poll conducted by Time magazine, nor to frustrate moderators at online game Habbo Hotel- where there is a well documented history of admins deleting black characters for no reason other than their race- by launching crippling raids on the game’s servers.
The idea that centralised power is necessary to mould a community into an effective force is an antiquated one; an echo from the top down system of organization that dominated the past. As discussed in the preceding piece, the legitimacy and influence of such systems is declining, especially when one’s personal opinion and freedoms are becoming more and more important.
Bickering and infighting will still naturally occur in groups within a singular leader, and of course there will splinter factions and rebellious members who will do things their own way. However, this does not mean that the group isn’t raising awareness of the issues and taking action, it simply means they are doing so through a different way.
Next time you want to start a protest don’t force people back into the physical with paper petitions and town-hall meetings. Embrace your peers’ right to participate however they want and simply provide a place where they can conjugate and give them the information they need to form the foundations of their own opinions.
The way to overcome the inherent ‘weak ties’ of social networks is to form an interactive community united under a general banner rather than a group thoroughly defined by prescribed views. Write an article, make an e-petition or start a discussion to stir up their passions and then unleash them as a pack of individuals. They will fight their own battles, make their own arguments, and therefore establish a strong personal tie to the issue. By doing so they are combining the passion of the involved with the tools of the interested, and it is from this fusion that the strength of the modern voice emerges. ‘Viva la revolución’ indeed…