subscribe: Posts | Comments

The Revolution Will Be Reflected On Your Status Update

Comments Off on The Revolution Will Be Reflected On Your Status Update

The ‘net loves a good argument, especially a good argument about its own relevance.  Malcom Gladwell (large-haired public intellectual and the author of one of my favorite long-form magazine articles) is the latest to take a whack to the pretensions of social media and the Internet.  In short, Gladwell arguesthat the cloying triumphalism of social media advocates, those who claim that social media tools will help overthrow dictatorships and such, are nuts.  Interestingly, this argument has relevance well beyond the question of political impact, and goes to the more general question of whether social media is really as different as we all like to think.  As Gladwell puts it:

Some of this grandiosity is to be expected. Innovators tend to be solipsists. They often want to cram every stray fact and experience into their new model. As the historian Robert Darnton has written, “The marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past—even a sense that communication has no history, or had nothing of importance to consider before the days of television and the Internet.” But there is something else at work here, in the outsized enthusiasm for social media. Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.

Gladwell claims not to have forgotten, however: activism is real dedication, he argues.  The willingness to put your life at risk, and sacrifice on behalf of your friends, or a higher ideal.   “Strong” ties between people are necessary in order to make that happen: the bonds of civil rights protesters sitting at a lunch counter, or the bonds of partisans actually fighting a war; mere acquaintances do not have that level of “buy in” to inspire revolution.  Social media, conversely, is about cultivating “weak” ties — capturing the interests of more people, rather than developing dedicated fanatics.  He makes a distinction between “motivation” and “participation”: Social media is fantastic at increasing participation of people already interested in a subject, it is not designed to increase the motivation of folks not already interested.  Motivation, Gladwell clearly believes, is the key to a successful revolution.

But what about if you’re selling widgets through a sophisticated e-commerce site, or merely trying to use social media to develop interest in your brand.  Does any of this matter?  Should it?

It’s easy to divide the world up into “things that are important” and “things that aren’t,” but in many respects that’s a lazy outlook on life.  In fact, the semiotics of communication are the same whether you are trying to throw off the shackles of your oppression or figure out a way to start a new business.  This can seem superficially offensive, but it intuitively makes sense: in commerce, in your social existence and in politics you are trying to convince people to think and act in specific ways.  Social media is merely one more tool at your disposal.  Thus, it is important to understand the types of things it is good at doing, and the types of things it is less well suited for accomplishing on your behalf.

So what is social media good at?  It is good at connecting unaffiliated people who are interested in similar things.  It is good at delivering superficial messages.  It is good at branding.  It is good at keeping people up to date on what is going on.  Social media is good at keeping in touch with people, products or companies that do not demand constant attention.  Social media is good at encouraging small acts of creativity from large numbers of people.  Social media is good at sharing.

What is social media not good at?  Social media is not designed to encourage fanatic devotion — it is good at channeling fanatic devotion.  Social media is not good at inspiration from nothing, it is good at connecting an existing idea with other folks who might like it. 

So whether the revolution will be televised, tweeted or e-mailed is less important that whether the inspiration is there in the first place.  Social media is a tool of communication, and not the holy grail.  If you have a good idea, it will help you spread the word.  In this case, however, Marhsall McLuhan was wrong: the medium is not the message.