Social networks and reform: revolution or red herring?

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…


6 responses to “Social networks and reform: revolution or red herring?

  1. “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.”

    Or, do both!

    I still don’t quite agree on where the importance of new technology lies, though I agree on the importance in quantitative terms. I think this article puts too much emphasis on social media as a replacement of older mechanisms, but I don’t quite see at as that; I see it as an addition to a group of possibilities. I don’t deny that, with the example above, you may well get many more members to your campaign group via social media than with a physical outside-the-supermarket petition. But – the question is, are they the same people? I’d argue that the (smaller) group of people who’d sign that supermarket petition probably wouldn’t join an online group, and vice versa; so provided you can commit the time and energy to both areas, you’ll get an even bigger groundswell of support. And the same goes with any other technique you can use – newspaper, television and so on. Think of it like a Venn diagram, with each circle representing a different medium – internet groups, physical petitions, newspaper campaigns, tv campaigns, and so on. There’ll be some people who support your cause but use none of those, and so they won’t be in any circle; there’ll be some whose interest would be attracted by any, so they go in the central crossover. But the majority will only be in one or two of the boxes: so you might attract someone via tv or newspaper ads who wouldn’t have signed your petition, or joined your facebook group or forum. Or you might get someone who doesn’t use internet, tv or newspapers, but who does get involved with community things, such as that petition you put in the Post Office. The point is, whilst some media are more effective than others, all have their place; the best campaign will use all available media in order to get its message to the widest possible audience. This is what the importance of social media is – not something to usurp the old methods, but a new and improved version. It’s not an entire new system, replacing everything that’s gone before; it’s just the best addition in a very long time, to an increasingly complicated web of communication. So it is important, and Gladwell’s points are almost all wrong, but it’s important in a subtly different way.

  2. In many ways I agree with you Ned, and it wasn’t my intention to imply that Social Media is replacing traditional methods, rather to emphasise the important role new technology can play. As you pointed out, there are currently people that social media is far less likely to reach and by focussing solely on Social Media one effectively alienates them from the cause. One of the great strengths of physical action is that everyone has the tools to do it, everyone is a protester.
    I fully accept this but at the same time I believe that it is a dwindling problem. From office emails to Smart-phones to student submission programs like BlackBoard, the internet and other mass media technologies are slowly making their way into everyday life. Your example exemplifies this nicely: a paper petition in a Post Office, both dying hallmarks of a bygone era. I cannot see the problem of technophobia inhibiting future generations, especially not when all it takes to start a protest is a word processor and a basic knowledge of how to get your message out.
    At this point in time, obviously neither form replaces another but the key thing is that people accept the power of social and civic media as an influential force of change.

    Thanks for your feedback though, very inciteful.

  3. Inciteful? I’d prefer insightful!

    You’re right, there is going to be a steady filtering away from the old formats toward the new; that’s how society progresses. But the point at which it stops being worthwhile to use the old formats alongside the new, can take a surprisingly long time.

    I think you can generalise the population into three groups, in terms of their receptiveness to new technologies: you have the techno junkies, the people who jump on any new development immediately and then rave about it endlessly, the sort who queue up to be the first to buy iPads and so on. You have the technophobes, who you identify. And then you have everyone else, the big group in the middle, the “I don’t cares”, who don’t take on board new developments immediately but come round soon enough – the sort who didn’t see the point of DVD players or HD TVs when they already had perfectly good TV-VCRs, and so on. And you can see these groups reflected in the way that new technologies integrate into society. The first stage after they’re unveiled is fairly low key, as only the junkies embrace it; then it filters into the I don’t cares, and suddenly it seems to be everywhere; but there’s still the technophobes, who take a lot lot longer. You can see it perfectly in the use of the internet generally: the web had been around for a good while in the 90s, and plenty of people used it, but it was still a relatively niche activity. Then it exploded into the popular conscience from about 2000 onwards, and suddenly everyone seemed to be online. And yet there’s still a decent section of society – we all know a few people who belong to it – who use the internet rarely-to-never. The point that’s relevant to this discussion is how that final group can often take a very long time to come around. A couple of examples:

    Radio. The music stations are one thing – image is redundant in music, unless you’re Bowie or Gaga, so there’s no benefit to TV over radio for music – but how do talk stations, particularly ones like Radio 4, carry on going? It seems obvious, to those of us who watch a lot of TV and listen to little radio, that TV is a superior format for a lot of Radio 4’s output. Why have Gardeners’ Question Time on radio when you could put it on BB2 with pictures of the plants; why have The Archers on radio when you could [i]show[/i] what they’re all doing, and so on. And yet, although the majority agreed and radio popularity decreased pretty sharply after TV became widespread in the 50s (the I don’t cares voting with their feet), it’s only declined very slowly since then. There’s clearly a group of impressively devoted people stopping radio from becoming completely extinct, and it can’t all be accounted for by listening in the car.

    Cheques. University researchers and newspaper columnists have been predicting for years and years that we’re about to see “the death of the cheque”. And to a degree, they were right: cheques are used far less than they were 75 years ago. And yet, that decline has slowed – credit and debit cards, the supposed cheque-killers, were commonplace 20 years ago, but cheque usage hasn’t dropped all that much since then. We’ve been reading the doom-mongering articles for years, but cheques are still clinging on – they’re proving surprisingly hard to get rid of altogether.

    This isn’t to say that things don’t eventually become defunct, and that social/civic media won’t in the end make physical petitions and so forth entirely pointless. No one any more uses telegrams, for example – they did eventually die out completely. It’s just to say that the tipping point, where the technophobes become so limited in number that we can afford to drop all the old outdated stuff, could be a lot further away than we might expect. Like TV, social media could have a long period where it’s dominant, but not exclusive. Your conclusion has it spot on – I’d argue that it’s not merely an influential force, but the predominant one, now – but as you say, it’s not “replacing” yet, and I suspect it’ll be a while before it does.

  4. Hi Ned – thanks for your comments. Much appreciated!

    However…. cheques are set to be phased out:

    Plus the UK also has a huge push with Martha Lane Fox’s Government-endorsed initiative to get the the 10 million people in the UK who are offline, online.

    As government, banks, health support, councils et al shift online, people are being forced to change their behavior – this is a socioeconomic issue and one that is being taken very seriously at central gov level.

    This isn’t just about early adopters and technophobes. This is about fundamental shift in how we organise our everyday lives. And it’s being pushed very hard and very quickly.


    Elizabeth – Civicboom Founder.

  5. We’ll have to wait and see what happens, I guess!

    I don’t deny that the interested parties – banks, big business, govt – are keen to speed up the “switch”, and it must cost them a lot more to continue catering for different customers in different ways, rather than having everyone using the same system. But I’d extend the same advice to them – no matter how hard they push the changes, the stragglers who prefer the old methods will be very stubborn. As I say, we’ve been having the death of the cheque story for years and years, and yet that article from last December was still only predicting them being phased out over a further 9 years. I’d put good money on that deadline being extended at least once. And getting people online – showing and advising on the internet to those who don’t know what they’re missing out on is an excellent initiative. But the “offline” people I know, would be extremely unimpressed if anyone tried to persuade them to get online. Not because they have any particular reason to avoid it, but because they’d resent what they’d see as pestering and intrusion into the way they go about their lives. As I say, getting those final stubborn few to submit to the change can be a lot harder than you first expect, especially when any attempt to encourage them is angrily rebuffed. Perhaps I’m just a cynic, or a bit of a Luddite myself, but I predict that despite all these initiatives, we’ll still be using cheques in 2020, and there’ll still be a hardcore of people who don’t use the internet.

    (Sorry for not addressing the Santander link – I’m not actually familiar with that “guarantee card” system anyway, so I’m not 100% sure what it’s about. I just write cheques myself…)

  6. Doh! I meant to thank for your keen input rather than insinuating that you were stirring up trouble.

    I think your point about the stubbornness of certain groups when it comes to change is massively relevant. Once you’ve experienced the new and become a part of it, it’s easy to look at those outside and say that they’ll undoubtedly be drawn in because you were. In reality, those individuals often resist for aesthetic or nostalgic reasons and it will be very hard to convince them to become involved. I think this is in part due to the complex terminology of computers (not to mention the internet having it’s own language and dialects) which can be massively intimidating for a newcomer. Another large factor is that if their old system is still available they won’t switch over regardless of how they’re encouraged or pressured by initiatives.

    That being said, they will have very little choice if their preferred objects- Newspapers,books, television etc- become solely digital. I’m not saying this is the definite future, but there is a strong possibility that it could happen. If local newspapers die out, will people simply stop caring or will they seek out community or civic based media online?

    Though many modern people are afraid to admit it, there is a lot of technophobia (your use of luddite is suggestively apologetic) still around today. E-Books are a great example of this; most people that I’ve spoken to that dislike the idea do so almost purely because of aesthetic and irrational reasons- the smell of an old book, the feel of crisp new pages between you fingers- and whilst they continue to deny arguably superior technology on these intangible grounds we cannot simply say that people will switch to something simply because it’s better or newer. I think it is becoming an increasing tendency to ‘betray’ competing brands because one wants a better product: how many people do you know that own both X-Box and a Wii without feeling as if they’ve slept with enemy so to speak?

    I for one have a Sony music player, Shure Headphones and speakers from another rival company. I see no problem with this, in fact it seems foolish not to mix and match, in order to receive the optimum results. This pragmatic approach is most likely due to the steadily increasing influence of rationalism in society, but that process is far from complete and it will perhaps never will be, depending on whether the inherent nature of man is a logical one.


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