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Revolution and Social Media – And What It Means For You

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In a post I did last October, I freely stole a lyric from Gil Scott-Heron, and asked whether The Revolution Will Be Reflected in Your Status Update. In light of what is going on in Egypt right now, it is a issue worth revisiting.

The central question in my post was whether social media is actually a force for social change at all.  This is not an idle question — and in fact has some fairly significant implications for business, regulation, legal risks and the even nature of our society.  In other words, almost everything worth thinking about. 

Much of the thinking on this issue at the time was driven by an article by famed public intellectual and New Yorker writer Malcom Gladwell.  Gladwell argues that, as I put it at the time, “the cloying triumphalism of social media advocates, those who claim that social media tools will help overthrow dictatorships and such, are nuts.”  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.

“Strong” ties between people are necessary in order to inspire people to put their lives at risk: 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.

In light of what happened in Egypt, however, I have decided that Gladwell’s theory is completely misguided — and I have further concluded that Gladwell’s very wrongness has some profound implications for social media.

Revolution and social change (and, for that matter, the urge to buy a product or give up your privacy rights in exchange for game on Facebook) is not about trusting someone else with your life.  Instead, it is about the viral nature of ideas, and becoming convinced that something (the overthrow of a dictator, for example) is inevitable.  If you trust in the inevitability of something happening (or something becoming popular) you are free to buy into it, and it becomes more likely.  In other words, most people are not early adopters (of anything from social change to new technologies).  They need to be convinced that others are buying it too before they take the plunge.  That is the power of social media.

Another interesting angle on all of this, however, is that shortly after things really began to seem serious in Egypt, and social media had become a central part of the spread of demonstrations, the government turned off the Internet completely.  Now, as we all know you can’t really do a complete shutdown without turning off phone service (and satellite phones can still work even then) but this diminished mass access to Twitter and Facebook and similar social media tools for most of the population.  But, at a certain point, you don’t really need that access anymore if you are trying to inspire a revolution.  Once people think it is real enough, the mere fact that the Internet has been taken away may be confirmation that victory is at hand.

This brings me to another thing I discussed back in October:

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.

So in other words, if you have a good idea, a powerful idea, social media is an effective way to communicate it to lots of people and help the idea become viral.  If you have a lousy idea, it will not make it any better.  So whether the revolution will be televised, tweeted or e-mailed is less important, as I have noted before, than whether the inspiration is there in the first place.