30 September 2010

On Tweeting and a little tipple

There's a very interesting article by Malcom Gladwell in the current (October 4th) issue of The New Yorker, on the reality/perception gap in the professed value of online social networks, specifically as an enabler for social activism.

I had an opportunity to hear Gladwell speak back in 2005, while he was still riding the crest of the Tipping Point wave, and it cemented my view of him as someone who does a very good job of stating the obvious, but making it sound bold, exciting and new. However the success that he has enjoyed and the reverence with which he is held within the Web 2.0 world indicates that a) his ideas are apparently not obvious to everyone and b) there are a lot of folks in the Web 2.0 world that really don't have that great an imagination. The first point surprises me, the second less so, given the fact that this is an industry that for at least three years based the majority of its business plans on a five page article in Wired (clearly indicating that the Harvard Business Review was hovering at that time somewhere between 'Tired' and 'Expired').

What Gladwell does best, in fact has made a career of doing, is restating an existing thought prevalent in some areas, and by doing so he allows others outside those thought spheres to adopt those ideas by saying, "Malcom Gladwell says this, so it must be worthwhile". He is the personification of a Tipping Point, once he vocalises an idea, it becomes acceptable to the mainstream.

In many ways this resembles the recent media coverage of Brian Cowen's hung-over radio interview; there were many journalists drinking with him until 3am the night before and they all knew he was probably hung-over or still drunk when he did the early morning radio interview, but none would actually risk a potentially career-limiting move and report the news of this until Simon Coveney TD tweeted about it. They could then happily report on his Tweet and the allegations it contained, but none were willing to write about the incident itself until a 3rd party had already done so. Coveney's Tweet gave them permission to write about the event without taking any risks themselves.

In a similar fashion Gladwell enables people to adopt ideas without taking risks; one may be aware of an unorthodox business practice but be unwilling to risk ridicule by implementing it, however once Gladwell has popularized it the risk is no longer so great.

It was thus with some interest that I read his most recent article in New Yorker, wherein he turns his attention social activism, comparing 1960's actions of civil disobedience in the South with the coverage of last year's protests in Iran. During this so-called "Green Revolution" in Iran, the media fell in love with Twitter. Folks turned their profile pictures green as a show of solidarity and the images of Neda Agha-Soltan flooded the tubes, her personal tragedy becoming the iconic image of the uprising. It was the perfect Revolution 2.0, a pro-democracy movement rising up against a hated enemy of the US, demanding economic and social freedoms and using the power of the internet to fuel its progress. It was an open source Revolution, the whole word could take part and together tweet-in-tweet the world would overthrow the forces of oppression.

Only none of this was true.

Well, some parts were true, the parts about a movement rising up to demand more social freedoms, those parts were true. The whole bit about the Twitter revolution, not so much. As Gladwell puts it:
In the Iranian case, meanwhile, the people tweeting about the demonstrations were almost all in the West. "It is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right,” Golnaz Esfandiari wrote, this past summer, in Foreign Policy. “Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.” The cadre of prominent bloggers, like Andrew Sullivan, who championed the role of social media in Iran, Esfandiari continued, misunderstood the situation. “Western journalists who couldn’t reach—or didn’t bother reaching?—people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag #iranelection,” she wrote. “Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi."
Welcome words, even if they come over a year after the events themselves.

The power of the interent as a tool for radical reform, or as an enabler for social justice, has been something of an ideological blindspot for me. As someone emerging from the corporate Web 2.0 environment I had a strong desire to put my industry knowledge to a better use than online advertising. For over a year I worked with political groups, NGOs and activists advising them on ways to harness the possibilities of social media and I desperately wanted Web 2.0 to usher in a dawn of true participatory social action, but by June 2009 I was demoralised and disillusioned, not by the tools themselves but by the behaviour such tools engendered in their users, the aggression, incivility, impatience and, most damaging as far as social activism goes, the overwhelming passivity.

Tools such as Twitter do not encourage creativity, they do not encourage dialogue, they do not encourage action. All they encourage is the willing adoption of a strict hierarchical structure of leaders and followers, and a false sense of participation. Writing at the time of the Iranian protests I said that:
"What annoys me about the media coverage of Twitter though is that in the absence of any visible leaders at the Iranian protests, Twitter has been seized on as the personification of the movement. The US media cannot cope with autonomous collective action, they need a figurehead to interview, to wrap a story around, to deify or to hang. The concept of a non-hierarchical spontaneous movement is alien to a Capitalist culture, which cannot understand how a group might function without clearly defined roles of leaders and followers.

And into the void fits Twitter so very neatly, a tool designed to enable leaders to broadcast to followers, that engenders strict hierarchies and encourages collective passivity. Turning your icon green will not support change in Iran. Tweeting others to twitition Google to Google-Doodle for freedom or update images of Tehran on Google Earth will not save a single life. The only way to effect change is to get off your backside, away from your computer, and go out there and do something."
While Gladwell disagrees on the value (or otherwise) of hierarchical structures in a protest movement, arguing that radical leftist movements only work because of strict hierarchical cells (to which I would point out the collectivist structure of the Zapatistas), he does believe that a movement can only be successful with actual feet on the ground, with real people taking real risks. Social networking tools in fact discourage activism, because they facilitate a level of faux-participation by making it easier to support something without actually having to take any risks, as he explains:
"Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece. The next biggest Darfur charity on Facebook has 22,073 members, who have donated an average of thirty-five cents. Help Save Darfur has 2,797 members, who have given, on average, fifteen cents. A spokesperson for the Save Darfur Coalition told Newsweek, “We wouldn’t necessarily gauge someone’s value to the advocacy movement based on what they’ve given. This is a powerful mechanism to engage this critical population. They inform their community, attend events, volunteer. It’s not something you can measure by looking at a ledger.” In other words, Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro."
I once had a discussion with Vint Cerf about my belief that the Internet would make everyone stupid, that instant access to information would discourage true research just as calculators fostered innumeracy or word processors allow me to get away with atrocious spelling. He of course disagreed, but if I were to revisit this conversation with him I would now modify the basic premise of my argument ever so slightly; Capitalism has transformed people into consumers, consumers are passive users of objects. The internet commodifies and objectifies information and social activity, thus social activity online becomes an oxymoron, for the internet itself engenders social passivity. Thus the internet will not make us stupid or lazy, for we are already predisposed to such states, all the internet does is allow us to easily give in to our basest desires. It is an enabler. It is the Tipping Point for our collective Id.

My reformulated question for Vint Cerf would now be, "The internet will allow us to be lazier than at any time in human history. Do we have the collective strength to resist?"

Despite the aforementioned flaws Gladwell's article, like much of his writing, is an enjoyable read, and well worth taking a few minutes more to read in its entirety. If as many people jump on this latest bandwagon as have on his previous wagon trains, my question for Vint might start to be greeted by others with less mirth.

Which would be nice.

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