Our class’s past two weeks of readings about politics, democracy, and the internet boil down to one question: Is the internet a good thing?
There are a lot of sub-questions here, but I’ll focus on these in this post:
1. Do social media tools promote positive (which is subjectively determined, of course) real-world action, whether that be getting out the vote, donating to a cause, or turning up to protest an unjust regime?
2. And how much power do these for-profit companies (google, facebook, twitter, etc.) have in terms of (among other things) their ability to filter content viewers see?
Like-Button vs. Offline Activism
The typical (and boring – but, I think, true) answer to the “is the internet a good thing” question is that the internet – or any technology – is not itself good or bad. It just is. People can use the internet for good or bad, just as they can the printed word, cars, or kitchens.
But moving beyond that obvious answer, our readings allow us to think about this further. In his much debated New Yorker article about “why the revolution will not be tweeted”, Malcolm Gladwell argues that weak ties have their uses but are not the same as strong ties, and goes on to say that “the evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend”. And Hamid Tehrani of the blogging network Global Voices also questions the impact of social media, specifically with regards to the Green Revolution in Iran.
I don’t know who these evangelists Gladwell is talking about are, but I know a lot of people who believe social media/internet/technology can be used to empower real action, and they certainly aren’t stupid enough to mistake a Facebook friend for a real friend.
I appreciate Tehrani’s point that Twitter’s role in Iran was exaggerated – that although it was important in publicizing what was happening, it did not necessarily play a role in organizing folks on the ground (though I suspect tools like Twitter have that potential, given the right circumstances). And similarly, I appreciate Gladwell’s point about “like button activism” and how social media makes it easy to participate in an effort by lessening the barrier to participate – just click. And I do think this is a point that is not appreciated by many, especially nonprofits – as I’ve said before, I’ve seen many public health organizations jump on the twitter/facebook bandwagon, collecting followers and fans, with no thought of what their end goal is.
That said, Gladwell seems to argue that “like button activism” is a) useless and b) the only kind of activism possible via social media.
First – “like button activism” isn’t useless. It can be incredibly useful in terms of spreading basic information – for instance, as I already mentioned with Tehrani’s criticism, though Twitter may not have been as critical to the Green Revolution as has been suggested, it did help publicize what was happening. As Jared Keller of the Atlantic put it, “the Green revolution was a Twitter revolution; while social media fell short organizationally, it brought the violence in the streets of Tehran to the forefront of the geopolitical conversation.” There’s got to be something said for that, right? To point out one of Clay Shirky’s examples on this front – BBC found out about the Sichuan earthquake in China in 2008 via Twitter and the Chinese government found out about it via the Chinese social networking site QQ. As Shirky points out, “The last time there was a quake of that magnitude, it took the Chinese three months to admit that it had happened. Here they don’t even have a choice because the world is already reporting on it as they’re kind of mobilizing.”
Second – “like button activism” isn’t the only social media activism. Gladwell suggests, with his comment cautioning those of who “think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating”, that we’re in a zero-sum game, where only social media like button activism or real world civil rights activism is possible. That’s silly, and reminiscent of the JFK Forum panel on presidential debates in September, where a number of the speakers spoke as if televised debates and internet discussions could not exist simultaneously.
As Dave Pell counters, “What’s the point of arguing that a communications platform doesn’t replace the personal and group characteristics required for activism? Of course Twitter and Facebook can no more do that than could two cans attached by a string. But it seems equally absurd to argue that communicating through the most modern channels will somehow erase those activism-driving traits.” Sam-Graham Felson highlights the example of the Obama campaign, saying that “far from creating a zero-sum game, online participation can be a powerful gateway to offline engagement”. And Sarah Kessler at Mashable talks about how social media is reinventing activism.
Gladwell talks about the civil-rights moment as “high-risk activism” that “was also, crucially, strategic activism: a challenge to the establishment mounted with precision and discipline” – I think that same description could be applied to the Obama campaign, right?
I don’t want to make the mistake of attributing the Obama campaign’s success to the broad-reaching network/like-button activism Gladwell criticizes. That’s just the point, the Obama campaign was disciplined and strategic (maybe Gladwell is right, and online networks can’t be disciplined and strategic, but they sure can be used by groups that are), using social media to organize offline engagement, ensuring that real-world personal ties remained at the core of their effort, and thus ensuring motivation was not ephemeral.
I liked Felson’s critique of Gladwell’s article much more than I did Twitter co-founder Biz Stone’s – for, like Gladwell, he too misses the point about how social media can lead to strong-tie efforts as well as weak-tie ones. Instead, he just extols the power of weak ties – I don’t deny that weak ties have power in spreading information and new ideas, but strong ties are what lead to sustained and committed action. In other words, I have to agree with Gladwell that weak ties don’t have the kind of revolutionary power that changes the world. What I disagree with is the notion that social media only allows for weak ties – as Felson ends his response, “technology can be used to strengthen real-world ties, organize people to do real things, and empower people to create meaningful change.”
Internet Company Power – the Filter Bubble
In exploring the question of how the internet is used for good and bad, it is of course important to revisit a question asked in an earlier blog post – is Google/Facebook/Twitter/[insert name of future internet company here] taking over the world? This involves many different things, but I’ll focus on something we focused on in class recently – the filter bubble.
Eli Pariser of Moveon.org argues that the filter bubble – the increasing personalization of the sources through which we get information online (Google and Facebook, in particular) – is a serious problem. This is automatic, algorithmic channeling of information that we cannot opt out of and are sometimes unaware of. This clearly poses some concerns, including that it makes it harder for us to be exposed to divergent viewpoints, or even news that might disturb or upset us.
Like Pariser says, this personalization of information is good for us as consumers, but terrible for us as citizens. We might all click on links to silly youtube videos more so than we do links to news articles about serious and saddening world events, but if our searches and news feeds are favoring youtube videos instead of serious world events as a result, it poses huge problems for us as citizens, and society as a whole by extension.
Someone in class pointed out that Pariser puts the bulk of the responsibility for fixing this on the corporations that profit from just these algorithms instead of focusing on what we as individuals can do. Being a systems-level focused person, I definitely agree with Pariser that we need to make sure corporations take responsibility – we need to call on them to be transparent – if you’re going to filter my information, tell me how you’re filtering it, and allow me to opt out. But I also agree with my classmate that we as individuals should play an active role – not just in calling on corporations to change their practices, but also in trying to fulfill our duties as citizens. Be active in seeking out opposing viewpoints and serious news articles – don’t get me wrong, I love LOLcats and reading stuff by people who agree with me as much as the next person, but if we let that kind of material be the only information we take in on a daily basis, we do ourselves and society a disservice.