An ancient virus has come back to life after lying dormant for at least 30,000 years, scientists...
We join spokes together in a wheel, but it is the emptiness of the center hole that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.
Thomas Friedman takes stock of the ‘revolution’ in Egypt and sees that the old powerful power blocs — Islam and the entrenched political system — still have the upper hand. So, he argues, those social tools that the protestors used — Twitter and Facebook — really aren’t that great for mobilizing:
Thomas Friedman, Facebook Meets Brick-and-Mortar Politics
To be sure, Facebook, Twitter and blogging are truly revolutionary tools of communication and expression that have brought so many new and compelling voices to light. At their best, they’re changing the nature of political communication and news. But, at their worst, they can become addictive substitutes for real action. How often have you heard lately: “Oh, I tweeted about that.” Or “I posted that on my Facebook page.” Really? In most cases, that’s about as impactful as firing a mortar into the Milky Way galaxy. Unless you get out of Facebook and into someone’s face, you really have not acted. And, as Syria’s vicious regime is also reminding us: “bang-bang” beats “tweet-tweet” every day of the week.
Commenting on Egypt’s incredibly brave Facebook generation rebels, the political scientist Frank Fukuyama recently wrote: “They could organize protests and demonstrations, and act with often reckless courage to challenge the old regime. But they could not go on to rally around a single candidate, and then engage in the slow, dull, grinding work of organizing a political party that could contest an election, district by district. … Facebook, it seems, produces a sharp, blinding flash in the pan, but it does not generate enough heat over an extended period to warm the house.”
What both Friedman and Fukuyama seem to forget is that two years is not two decades, nor is two years two centuries. The implicit expectation is that Twitter and Facebook should be able to compress time, and to rapidly accelerate the creation of deep and strong networks of people allied around new democratic ideals that are basically unknown in Egypt.
There is no quick fix, no silver bullet, no magic wand. Let’s wait ten years before we assess how the social revolution plays out in Egypt, and elsewhere.
Jeremiah Owyang wants to declare the end of the golden age of tech blogging, or, even more portentously, he says
The tech blogosphere, as we know it, is over.
This could be interpreted in a number of ways, but at face value — and leaving aside for the moment the specifics of his argument — I agree. The ‘blogosphere’ — that mid ’00s concept of a community of bloggers writing for each others and cross-linking through trackbacks and threaded comments — that communitarian vision has been superseded by other ideas of what is, or should be, happening, online.
However, I don’t want to adopt the metaphor that is used by people that fear the future, and long for a halcyon past. I won’t go along with the ‘golden age’ rhetoric, which is generally employed by those arguing a fall from a better past into a less virtuous present. (The concept comes from ancient Greek mythology, with its Golden, Silver, Bronze, Iron ages, and then the present, debased age.)
I prefer Winston Churchill’s trope:
Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
Churchill was, of course, referring to a turning point in the struggle with Germany during World War II, while we are discussing the transition from a more primitive and less social phase in the web revolution, into something more complex and, ultimately, more rewarding.
The points that Jeremiah makes to support his argument are very tactical, not looking at the strategic changes going on technologically or societally. His ‘trends’ aren’t really trends, but narrow extrapolations from recent events masquerading as business advice. They are these, in brief:
Trend 1: Corporate acquisitions stymie innovation
Trend 2: Tech blogs are experiencing major talent turnover
Trend 3: The audience needs have changed, they want: faster, smaller, and social
Trend 4: As space matures, business models solidify – giving room for new disruptors
These observations are interesting as far as they go, but aside from the ‘faster, small, and social’ I don’t think these are major, in any sense.
I’d like to offer a few trends that may be implied by Jeremiah’s lists or by the comments of various bloggers that he cites, but aren’t really characterized very well in his post.
It’s obvious that Jeremiah is caught up in the issues confronting three groups of web denizens posting their contributions posting on technology platforms based on a now well-established model of web publishing, which we call blogging. This is unexamined in his piece, but the model of a website made up of chronologically ordered posts with comments in a thread on each piece, and a variety of navigation or advertising widgets in the margin may be getting tired, and may not gibe with other modern advances in online media dynamics. At any rate, Owyang’s concerns seem to be directed toward three constituencies:
He doesn’t seem particularly concerned about the problems of major media companies, which continue to be deadly serious, nor does he refer to the notable advances that media companies like The Atlantic have accomplished. Nor does he spend much time talking about the technology companies — like Tumblr, Twitter, and Flipboard — that are involved in the tectonic changes going on today; changes that make the ebb and flow of small-potato business models surrounding tech blogging look like the scrambling of ants underneath the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Yes, we are veering into a new era of web media; and it’s about goddamned time.
Here’s a few of the most powerful trends, in summary:
Obviously, Owyang and those leaving comments on his post weren’t necessarily treating these trends. The post was ostensibly about the changes in the world of tech blogging, after all. But I don’t see how you can meaningfully explore that niche without the larger context.
Brian Solis sees the larger context as necessary as well:
I recently wrote about my thoughts on the state and future of blogs, which is of course far grander than the world of tech blogging. And as you can see, blogging is alive and clicking.
Yes, micromedia, video, and social transactions/actions are breaking through our digital levees and causing our social streams to flood. And, yes, Flipboard, Zite, and the like (get it?), are forcing our consumption patterns into rapid-fire actions and reactions. You have a choice. You are either a content creator, curator or consumer. You can be all of course. But, think about this beyond the mental equivalent of 140 characters. What do you stand for and what do you want to become known for? The answer is different for each of us. But, content, context, and continuity are all I need to learn, make decisions and in turn inspire others.
I don’t buy the consumer angle — after all, every person is curating for at least one person, themselves — so I consider it a cardinality distinction: curating for one is not appreciably different than curating for two or ten. All curators — of whatever degree of discernment — started by curating for themselves. But Solis clearly gets the big picture, and I agree totally that what is bubbling up today will make the web a place where we continue to come to learn, make decisions, and connect with — and perhaps inspire? — others to do the same.
This piece by Kirkpatrick suggests that he’s has a personal epiphany out at Salesforce, and wants to get us all excited about the coming revolution when social tools hit the enterprise. However, for those of us that have been writing about that topic for ten years — like me — this piece comes across as rah-rah boosterism rather than reasoned analysis.
Read it for the great quotes by John Hagel, Shoshanna Zuboff, and Mark Benioff. But there is a missing core of analysis here, which you will have to find elsewhere.
The drivers of social impact in business are derived the changes and amplification of human cognition when channeled by social tools, and the way that social density works like an atmospheric pressure on people. You won’t read that here, although Kirkpatrick might do more if he turns this into a book.
Lastly: the Arab Spring has been mythologized into a renaissance of suppressed people, catalyzed by the agency of social media. An uplifting passion play, suitable for several upcoming major motion pictures, I am sure. But for those that are looking closely into the drivers of the unrest there, you will find deep unemployment caused by rising food prices tied to long-term drought in the entire region and food production problems elsewhere. The transition of power that will follow won’t turn Libya and Egypt into Spain and Portugal, after the fall of their fascist regimes. Tunis and Cairo won’t morph into Westernism with something like parliamentary democracies, closely integrated into a neoliberal world, the way that Madrid and Lisbon managed to do. So I suggest that the heated rhetoric about those countries be cooled for a bit, until we can see the shape of what emerges. Most importantly, the drought, high food prices, and endemic unemployment and lack of opportunity for the youth of the Arab world has not been banished with Mubarak and Gaddafi. They will be with us for a long time to come. And youthful hope may soon change into embittered and obdurate anger, unless structural changes in the economy take place, not just a series of political coups unseating pharaonic despots.
Barbara Pollack, The Social Revolution
How many friends does an artist need? Facebook sets a limit of 5,000, but that hasn’t stopped many artists from tweeting, blogging, posting to well past that number. Today, there are artists who are fully engaged with the world of Web 2.0, the term for an interconnective Internet with sites that encourage user participation. With more and more people becoming familiar with social-networking sites, artists are tapping into these online communities and making works that harness new capabilities.
“The possibilities are endless,” says Louise Shannon, curator of contemporary art at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, who organized “Decode: Digital Design Sensations” at the museum in December 2009. The exhibition featured a number of examples of social-media art. “As networks grow, these opportunities will grow exponentially. We are only at the tip of an iceberg.”
“I look at it with a very long term of view,” says Barbara London, new-media curator at the Museum of Modern Art. “Artists are harbingers in working with materials and technology that keep updating faster than we can blink.”
Social-media art is an umbrella that covers a mind-boggling array of projects: performances accompanied by Twitter feeds, paintings inspired by Facebook profiles, online works that evolve as people participate, videos compiled from postings on YouTube, start-up companies created as art. “Social-media art, for me, is defined as anything that uses social media as either a medium, as source material, or as a starting point for critique,” says Hrag Vartanian, editor of Hyperallergic.com, a Brooklyn-based online publication, and the curator of “The Social Graph,” an exhibition that examined the impact of social networking on art, held at Outpost, a nonprofit art space in Bushwick, Brooklyn, last year. “The social graph” is a term coined by Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg to describe the way that a network of relationships can be applied to a variety of purposes, such as marketing.
Creating an exhibition in a physical space from what is basically an online phenomenon presented its own set of challenges. Artist An Xiao spoke to visitors through the online video-chat service Skype from the basement of Outpost, pretending she was in Los Angeles. Performance artist Man Bartlett was also present through a live video feed, stationed at Hyperallergic’s offices in Williamsburg. He asked visitors to complete the sentence “I am …”—”I am hungry,” “I am overly sensitive to criticism,” “I am thinking about my future”—via Twitter. In a 24-hour period, Bartlett received 1,500 responses, tagged with #24hkith, the title of the piece. The artist read the responses aloud, and for each one he attached a feather to a mannequin, which he sold to a collector for $2,000. “I am interested in looking beneath the technology itself at how we communicate with other human beings, and how that is changing as a result of social networking,” says Bartlett.
Keeping with the spirit of the show, “The Social Graph” was sponsored by another media-art project, Social Printshop, developed by Benjamin Lotan. Social Printshop is a service that makes posters out of people’s Facebook pictures, each costing $25. Lotan created the company for the M.F.A. program at the University of California, San Diego, where he is still a student. “I would say the company, its organization, and the group of people that I am working with are more the art piece than the posters, though it’s blurry,” says Lotan, who describes his practice as “durational performances where relationships and networks are formed.” He has already attracted two investors, raising over $70,000, but plans to expand social printshop to a much larger scale by this summer. For “The Social Graph,” Vartanian struggled to figure out the best way to include the project in the exhibition, and realized that the most natural relationship would be to have Social Printshop as his sponsor, the way that most cultural institutions interact with large corporations.
“The Social Graph” is just one of several recent exhibitions to showcase social-media art. “Free,” at the New Museum in New York last year, explored the ways that the Internet has expanded artists’ access to information. It included riverthe.net, a collaboration between video artist Ryan Trecartin and David Karp, the founder of Tumblr, a social-blogging platform. Like stream-of-consciousness poetry, riverthe.net is a constant flow of short videos posted by visitors to the site with additions from Trecartin. A much more ominous work in the show was Untitled Black Video (2009), by Dutch artist Martijn Hendriks. For this piece, the artist lifted online comments on an illegal video of the execution of Saddam Hussein and arranged them as subtitles beneath a black screen. Viewers can imagine the gruesome hanging from the posted words.
In the future, social art will mean more than performance art using social media tools. Conversational art objects will argue with us, like pedantic spimes. Mobs of people will leave trails of their social interactions, like Jackson Pollock paint spills. Heat maps of our wanderings across cities and the earth will be cross indexed with alien sitings or automobile collisions or the current color of the sky. Giant tribes and big data will mean monumental art, globe-spanning art, as if Christo got his final wish and could wrap the entire earth in brown paper.
Social starts as soon as you start your design
Open architectures, service orientation and cloud are things you keep in mind while designing your solution and or your applications. However social is most often forgotten, it is added afterwards or it is introduced as a separate silo. Thinking of social beyond the implementation and treating it is a design principle will help you in designing a different kind of solutions. Providing you with the advantage that the social transformation is coming from the start of the design, instead of after the introduction. This helps you and your organization to move the traditional enterprise to a more social business.
Applying social as a design principle is going beyond ‘being great’ on Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin. It is a fundamental change in how business are being run, organized and how businesses and their stakeholders interact and think. Shifting from thinking about social as something to implement in the end to seeing social as the starting point for every design will lead to a big change and it will lead to big benefits.
If you start designing your processes and application as social by default you’ll see that solutions are likely to become more flexible and connected. It will create more value than in the traditional silo approach and it will help to connect the dots between people, processes and systems. Since social is not only about human interaction but also about the interaction between humans and systems. Friending your ERP system and get status updates on your social platform has already become reality.
Introducing social as a design principle often requires more than just a bright mind suggesting it. It requires a change in the way of thinking and it impacts the way you run your business. In the end it requires a social transformation that requires attention and time in order to make sure that social is not only a design principle but also a principle you are able to execute on.
Man. I guess the social revolution has run pretty far when buttoned down consulting firms like Capgemini are promoting social business dogma.
The pessimist in me might simply say they are just selling what people want to buy, but the optimist says they are selling what is good for business, so I won’t stress.
Ingram picks up on the flimsy reasoning in Gladwell’s recent redux of his ‘Twitter is no revolutionary tool’ argument:
After weeks of discussion in the blogosphere over whether what happened in Tunisia was a “Twitter revolution,” and whether social media also helped trigger the current anti-government uprising in Egypt, author Malcolm Gladwell — who wrote a widely-read New Yorker article about how inconsequential social media is when it comes to “real” social activism — has finally weighed in with his thoughts. But he continues to miss the real point about the use of Twitter and Facebook, which is somewhat surprising for the author of the best-seller The Tipping Point.
Gladwell’s tone is bizarrely anti-modernist:
Right now there are protests in Egypt that look like they might bring down the government. There are a thousand important things that can be said about their origins and implications: as I wrote last fall in The New Yorker, “high risk” social activism requires deep roots and strong ties. But surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along. Barely anyone in East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone—and they ended up with hundreds of thousands of people in central Leipzig and brought down a regime that we all thought would last another hundred years—and in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice. People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.
This argument is motivated by a desire to square his pitch of social tools as being inadequate support for revolutionary activity, as he advanced in his Small Change piece last fall. He argued then that revolutions needed to be controlled through strong ties — like Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Civil Rights movement.
Mark Ingram continues, citing Zeynep’s Tufecki’s discussion of strong and weak ties in a rebuttal of Galdwell’s Small Change arguments:
But as sociology professor Zeynep Tufekci argues in a blog post responding to Gladwell — and as we argued in a recent post here — the point is not that social media tools like Twitter and Facebook cause revolutions in any real sense. What they are very good at doing, however, is connecting people in very simple ways, and making those connections in a very fast and widely-distributed manner. This is the power of a networked society and of cheap, real-time communication networks.
Weak ties can also connect to and become strong ties
As Tufekci notes, what happens in social networks is the creation of what sociologist Mark Granovetter called “weak ties” in a seminal piece of research in the 1970s (PDF link) — that is, the kinds of ties you have to your broader network of friends and acquaintances, as opposed to the strong ties that you have to your family or your church. But while Gladwell more or less dismissed the value of those ties in his original New Yorker piece, Tufekci argues that these weak ties can become connected to our stronger relationships, and that’s when real change — potentially large-scale global change — can occur.New movements that can bring about global social change will still require people who interact with each other regularly, and trust and depend on each other in somewhat dense networks. Or only hope is if those networks span the globe in a tightly-knit, broad web of activity, interaction, personalization. Real change will come only if we can make friends we care about everywhere and we make bridge ties that cover the world in a web of common humanity.
Trufecki and Ingram are on to something, but they — and Gladwell — miss something very basic about the nature of Twitter and other social tools, something critical to revolution. Ideas spread more rapidly in densely connected social networks. So tools that increase the density of social connection are instrumental to the changes that spread.
The Granovetter distinctions between strong and weak ties are not as relevant in this context as the density of connections in the network.
When people are connected to a large number of other people through a real-time social medium like Twitter, information and ideas will travel faster across the population than when people are connected to a smaller number of people. And, more importantly, increased density of information flow (the number of times that people hear things) and of the emotional density (as individuals experience others’ perceptions about events, or ‘social contextualization’) leads to a increased likelihood of radicalization: when people decide to join the revolution instead of watching it.
This is another example of messiness at scale, which is why we find the most vibrant art scenes in large cities, and why technology regions — like Silicon Valley and New York City — where network connections are rich and dense, lead to the highest innovation. With a sufficient degree of connections, change and innovation can become superlinear, meaning that adding more people to the network increases the possibilities for additional change and innovation at a rate faster than the increase of the network. It’s like critical mass in nuclear explosions.
These are all revolutions, although what is happening in Egypt, Tunisia, and other locales are political ones. They all require social density — one element of messiness at scale — to act as the matrix in which they grow.
Gladwell is right, that older revolutions relied on different tools, like newspapers and telephones, to reach the necessary social densities so that people would be radicalized.
But the fact that other revolutions used other tools does not mean that the tools used today aren’t instrumental, and doesn’t mean that the inherent character of today’s tools — real-time, distributed, decentralized — hasn’t had a major impact on the movements it supports. On the contrary: the Egyptian revolution has no central planning, no cadre surrounding a Mao-like figure up in the hills, no government-in-exile pulling the strings. It is as messy and diffuse as a thousand swarms of angry bees.
Gladwell and others will continue to miss what is happening, out in the open, because they deny the nature of social culture. At its core, Gladwell’s arguments are not about the way revolutions work, but a denial of the strength of social culture: the culture that the social web is engendering, wherever it touches us. Wherever we connect.
As the newest enemy of the future to come forward, and write (yet another) book that attacks the rise of a social culture, Sherry Turkle is being warmly received by the Sunday supplement naysayers, who desperately want to illegitimize what we are doing online. The newest example is below, where are are told that Twitter and Facebook are driving us crazy, our online relationships are ersatz and cheapen ‘real’ connection, and that school kids are becoming addicted to the dopamine that squirts in their brains every time they make a friend on Facebook.
Charles Lawrence, Twitter and Facebook are driving us mad, says prof
Just two text-ready words may have punctured the delusion of cyberspace ‘connectedness’ that has gripped a twittering new world: ‘Alone Together’. They are the title of a book from a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has finally plucked up the courage to tell us something we all secretly know: we are losing our minds to a mania for the social media of Twitter, Facebook and instant messaging.
We are in danger of relinquishing our humanity to “social robotics” and a “new social confusion.” We are swapping real life for vicarious life.
There have been warnings before from shrinks and sociologists, not to mention anyone with the commonsense to have got angry at those texting away under the dinner table or the idiot bumping into you because he is buried in his Blackberry.
But Professor Sherry Turkle’s new book is the first to get the message through. Alone Together has sparked debate on where all this is taking us. The backlash has begun.
And so, of course, has the backlash to the backlash. Every book reviewer, commentator and reporter can, after all, be “reached on Twitter”. The word Luddite buzzes through cyberspace.
However furiously the fingers tap the interactive screens, however, it is hard to dispute Turkle’s argument.
“We’re using inanimate objects to convince ourselves that even when we’re alone, we feel together,” she writes. “And then when we are with each other, we put ourselves in situations where we feel alone – constantly on our mobile devices.
“It’s what I call a perfect storm of confusion about what’s important in our human connections. In solitude, new intimacies, in intimacies, new solitude.”
Talking to school kids, she finds that they are so used to hiding behind the cyber-walls of Twitter, text and Facebook posts that they are actually afraid to make a telephone call, let alone look someone in the eye at a face-to-face meeting.
Turkle, a psychology professor in MIT’s Science, Technology and Society programme, warns that all this is as addictive as dope, and for the same reason. “The adrenaline rush is continual,” she says. “We get a little shot of dopamine every time we make a connection.”
Having the latest device offers the same kind of dopamine rush. They are flaunted by the types who think that he or she who gets the most messages at the party or the business meeting wins. They have no idea that they are simply the cheap version of the old style social climber who pays the waiter to whisper in his ear that he is wanted on the telephone, urgently.
“It is a huge backlash,” says William Kist, a professor of education at Kent State University, Ohio. “The different kinds of communication people are using have become something that scares people.” He is a fan of ‘communication’, however, saying that what is needed is a new ‘netiquette’.
It had better come soon. There have already been studies indicating that the cyber clatter is numbing the brain, shortening the attention span, limiting the ability for real conversations, and eroding the bonds - such as empathy - that hold us together.
“We have forgotten how to respond ethically, emotionally and intellectually to the challenges, desires and opportunities of life at home and at work,” says Michael Bugeja, who wrote Interpersonal Divide in 2004, before anyone was ready to pay attention. His conclusion even then? The more connected, the more isolated.
Uproar over Turkle’s book has brought all sorts of academic tomes out off the back shelves. Evgeny Morozov – heard of him? – argues that social media makes people “slackovists”, always ready to post an opinion but never to do anything useful.
Mark Bauerlein of Emory University has a book out called simply The Dumbest Generation. “The intellectual future of the US looks dim,” he writes. A neuro-science project has studied the ‘brainwaves’ of teenagers playing video games while texting and keeping their eye on the Facebook page. Patterns of brain activity lit up the scanners in phenomenal displays of multi-tasking. But the same brains glowed only dimly when asked to focus on writing a story or solving a math problem.
“We have invented inspiring and enhancing technologies, yet we have allowed them to diminish us,” warns Turkle. “We’ve gone through tremendously rapid change, and some of these things just need a little sorting out.”
It’s all extremely knuckle-headed.
When I was a child this sort of story in the paper would be about the dangers of reading comic books and watching television. Then it was video games. Now, the glories of western civilization are being trashed by wired dopamine addicts who have forgotten what authentic intimacy is, we are told.
News flash: we feel connected because we are connected. It is not phony. It is not pretend. This is not a fantasy.
Please read the actual science that shows the reality of what’s going on, instead of this psychobabble. Check out posts here www.stoweboyd.com/tagged/social+cognition, and ignore the mumblers who are ideologically bent on undermining the new culture we are building on the web.
I do believe we are headed for a new consciousness, a new state of cognition, where we will have different values, perceptions, modes of reasoning, and behaviors. We will reject a great deal of what is conventional wisdom today. That’s why it’s a culture war: the war against social culture. They will say what we are doing is immature, immoral, illegitimate. But they are wrong, and since they don’t participate in the new web, they can’t really understand what is happening.
Chris Dixon starts by suggesting that Malcolm Gladwell might lack a deep understanding of Twitter, and that led him to an unsupportable argument in his recent ‘the rvolution will not be tweeted’ piece. In a nutshell that real revolutions require hierarchical control and strong ties, and that Twitter doesn’t have that or support it (I have a longer version of this, too, called Weak Ties And revolutions (With A Little ‘R’).)
But then Chris goes on to suggest that others might have a similar lack of understanding of the social revolution going on:
Chris Dixon, You need to use social services to understand them
I made some jokes on Twitter the past few days about Kleiner Perkins’ new social fund. These were meant to be lighthearted: I only know one person at KP and from everything I’ve seen they seem to be smart, friendly people. But underneath the jokes lies a real issue: the partners there don’t seem to really participate in social services (something they only underscored by announcing their new fund at a press conference that targeted traditional media outlets).
I’d love to engage in a debate with smart people like Gladwell about the impact of the social web on culture, politics, activism and so on. I also think it’s great to see savvy investors like KP allocate significant resources to the next wave of social web innovation. But it’s hard for me to take them seriously when they don’t seem to take their subject matter seriously.
I agree that knowing where to invest in this market will require deep understanding, and one of the places that can be gained is through usage. Regarding the fund, I am betting it will do no better than the market as a whole.
Malcolm Gladwell’s supposed takedown of social networks — they aren’t really revolutionary, he argues — continues to be paired up with ‘The Social Network’ as a one-two punch smack in the kisser of the web. Buried in the newest of these, an Op-Ed by Frank Rich, is a painful truth: for all the talk of transparency, openness, and change on the web, these tools haven’t slowed ‘big lies and big money’ in the American political circus:
Frank Rich, Facebook Politicians Are Not Your Friends
Just as “The Social Network” hit the multiplexes, Malcolm Gladwell took to The New Yorker with a stinging takedown of social networks as vehicles for meaningful political and social action. He calculated that the nearly 1.3 million members of the Facebook page for the Save Darfur Coalition have donated an average of 9 cents each to their cause. He mocked American journalists’ glorification of Twitter’s supposedly pivotal role during last year’s short-lived uprising in Iran, suggesting that the rebels’ celebrated Twitter feeds — written in English, not Farsi — did more to titillate blogging technophiles in the West than to aid Iranians in their struggle against totalitarian rulers.
“With Facebook and Twitter and the like,” Gladwell wrote, “the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will” was supposed to be upended, so it would be “easier for the powerless to collaborate, coordinate, and give voice to their concerns.” Instead, he concluded, we ended up with the reverse: social media increase the efficiency of the existing order rather than empowering dissidents. In his view, social networking is far less likely to recreate the civil rights movement of the 1960s than to track down missing cellphones for Wall Streeters.
Gladwell’s provocative Internet critique is complemented by a much-buzzed-about independent movie — in this case, an actual documentary — that was released shortly before “The Social Network.” No one will confuse this ham-fisted film, titled “Catfish,” with a Fincher-Sorkin production, but it’s highly unsettling nonetheless. It tells of a 25-year-old Manhattan photographer who strikes up a devoted Facebook friendship with a small-town Michigan family whose 8-year-old daughter is a painting prodigy. When the photographer seeks out his virtual friends in the real Michigan, it’s inevitable that he and the audience will learn the hard way, as the Times film critic A.O. Scott put it, that cyberspace is a “wild social ether where nobody knows who anybody is.”
Even if Gladwell and “Catfish” are overstating the case, they certainly have one if you look at the political environment in our election year of 2010. The Internet in general and social networking in particular have done little, if anything, to hobble those pursuing power with such traditional means as big lies and big money. Perhaps what’s most remarkable this year is the number of candidates who have tried to create fictitious avatars like the Facebook impostors in “Catfish.” These candidates and others often fashion their campaigns to avoid real reporters (and sometimes real voters). Some benefit from YouTube commercials paid for by impossible-to-trace anonymous donors. In this wild political ether where nobody knows who anybody is, the Internet provides cover, not transparency.
Go online, and you’ll discover that many of those now notorious false fronts for oil billionaires and other corporate political contributors have Facebook pages. We don’t know who has written checks to Crossroads GPS, the more shadowy wing of American Crossroads, the operation concocted in part by Karl Rove to raise $50 million to attack Democrats. (There’s already $32 million in the bank, $10 million more than was spent by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004.) But the American Crossroads page on Facebook sure looks like a bottom-up populist movement, festooned with photos of thousands of ordinary folk voting their “like” of the site. The Save Darfur Coalition page may have infinitely more friends, but it’s American Crossroads that has real clout in the real world even if nobody knows who is behind the screen.
The web is powerful, but can be used to herd opinion based on faulty reasoning just as well as it can open people’s eyes to new perspectives.
Honestly, the web is dangerous. I don’t mean in the way most people worry about it — bullying teenagers into suicide, or deranged stalkers or burglars taking advantage of Foursquare check-ins — but on the contrary, to use the cracks in out cognitive wiring to control our behavior.
Fear mongering, xenophobia, and ignorance are all at work in the efforts of politicians to herd people off a cliff at the next election, using the body count as a way to get into office.
So, if the web isn’t a benign force ushering in the age of Aquarius maybe it is bad, the commentators are saying. But this is just holding up a mirror: we created the web to happen to ourselves, and what comes of it is up to us.
Our prejudices, cognitive limitations, and ignorance aren’t magically fixed by networking us together. There is mounting evidence that the social web is an amplifier, but the behavior you put in to be amplified can be from any slice in the human condition.
As my friend Jamais Cascio once remarked, there will someday be a hashtag used during atrocities in a genocide somewhere. But we won’t blame the hashtag, or hashtags in general.
The web isn’t just patty cake and beanbag, and it’s no longer some sidebar to human events: it is deeply enmeshed in everything, like nervous tissue is spread throughout all our bodies.
But we don’t wonder about the inherent downside of gray matter just because it is implicated in depression, hate, murder and deception.
So let’s turn our focus back on the actual groups and individuals who benefit from concealing their identities and true purposes — like Crossroads GPS — and stop scapegoating the web and social network applications. You might as well blame ink and paper for the printing of hate literature, or the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo.
At the same time, I would like to see more slimy doings exposed, and nefarious actors pulled out from under the rocks. Hey, Frank: you work for the New York Times! Should the Times be doing more, using the web as a tool of investigation, and rallying people to counter the herding going on by Fox News and the Koch brothers?
Louis Brandeis said ‘Sunshine is the best disinfectant,’ and our activities online can cast a shining light: but the brightest lights cast the darkest shadows.
In the shadows of the web we will continue to find big lies and big money, trying to control us, and herd us. To them, the web is just more wool to pull over our eyes.