Jesse-Justin Cuevas, Associate Editor
Ideology: Liberal Independent | Writing from: Nashville, TN
As America becomes increasingly more tech savvy, campaigns, news and social justice have taken to the airwaves. More people get their news online than in print, and political campaigns and social justice causes surge social media outlets. But beneath their consumption of our collective News Feeds, are these current events, campaigns and causes really seeping through? Is the social media revolution actually a revolution?
The October 4th issue of the New Yorker featured a lengthy piece by Malcolm Gladwell about the futility of social media as activism. In it, Gladwell posits simply that, “the revolution will not be tweeted” because “the platforms of social media are built around weak ties,” and “weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.”
Gladwell’s article applauds social networks like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter for their canny ability to manage our relationships and, sometimes, keep relationships in tact that otherwise may dissipate. “There is strength in weak ties…our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information,” Gladwell echoes sociologist Mark Granovetter.
In terms of management and low-risk engagement, Facebook is incredibly efficient. High volume organizing via the web only works, Gladwell says, when you’re not asking too much from people, “that’s the only way you can get someone you don’t really know to do something on your behalf.”
Gladwell makes a distinction between trivial causes and low-risk commitment. One does not imply another; just because your Facebook friend or Twitter follower isn’t asking that much of you, it doesn’t mean the cause is without significance. The distinction that the “evangelists of social media” don’t understand is that “Liking” a page or signing a petition doesn’t necessitate that anyone confront any deeply engrained social norms. In fact, the exact opposite happens; when you support a noble cause online, only “social acknowledgment and praise”—as opposed to the KKK—follow you.
While I am not as adamant about the inability of social networking to mobilize people and change paradigms, I do agree with Gladwell’s main argument that online social networking is a great, albeit limited, tool for action. For an early-October feature in Early Risers Weekly, I interviewed Klein Lieu and Nik Dixit from Berekeley, California’s Don’t Get Meg’d. When probed about the Internet’s ability to affect real world change, the gentleman responded aptly that it “is the starting point for action; it’s not the end.” Social media is a fabulous way to get things started, so long as your followers, friends or subscribers don’t have to do much beyond clicking a button.
And yet in the light of The Social Network, critics and journalists abound are calling the heavily-anticipated Facebook movie the movie of a generation. James Surowieckie of the New Yorker calls it, “the fall’s most important business film—indeed, the most important business film in ages.” New York Magazine’s Mark Harris describes the film as, “the unofficial origin fable of perhaps the defining cultural phenomenon of this still-new century.”
Is that so? Does Facebook define us? Is this generation, this century even, characterized by a long string of numbers and letters that translate into mostly narcissistic and routinely manicured self-portraits that, at best, keep people connected at a safe and impenetrable distance, where no one is “asking too much” of one other? Have virtual friends replaced real ones? Are the causes we support merely altruistic self-reflections? This may be the Information Age, and we may be the iGeneration, but is that it?
I for one am uncomfortable being heralded as a networking “bot.” While I embrace the convenience of the Internet and the networking opportunities it offers, I must admit that I am resentful of my generation’s—and, apparently, this century’s—IP identity.