One of the media’s greatest preoccupations of the last few years — together with the MPs’ expenses scandal and the trials and tribulations of Cheryl Cole’s personal life — has been with the political significance of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Week after week, technology and media experts have heralded the coming of the cyber revolution, citing the influence that social networking sites had in Iran for the opposition movement, in America in the presidential election that led to Barack Obama’s victory, and in Moldova for the thousands who protested against the communist government in 2009 (all arguable). Such is the hype surrounding social networks that there has been a Hollywood movie made about the creation of Facebook: The Social Network, written by The West Wing‘s Aaron Sorkin (and reviewed by Peter Whittle on page 66).
But in the New Yorker, the contrarian writer Malcolm Gladwell has dared to doubt the power of internet activism — or “clicktivism”, “wiki-activism”, etc — arguing that the revolution will not be Tweeted. Citing the example of the American civil rights movement, Gladwell argues that the activism of effective protests like the Greensboro anti-segregation sit-ins of 1960, which eventually involved 70,000 students, relied on personal connections and shared experiences. You don’t take the sort of risks involved in political protests, especially in countries like Iran, with a Twitter contact or a Facebook friend whom you might not even have met; you take them with strong ties, such as family and close friends. Gladwell also targets the counter-productiveness of a social network’s celebrated feature — its lack of hierarchy. This is wonderful in low-risk situations, because it means that Wikipedia and its like can be resilient and adaptable. But to have influence in high-risk political situations activists need leaders who are able to stop a peaceful sit-in from turning into a violent protest that could compromise the whole movement.
Sorkin, when talking about the research conducted into The Social Network and the personalities involved in the creation of Facebook, was struck by the irony of a socially awkward man like Mark Zuckerberg (who co-founded Facebook) creating the world’s most important social networking device since the telephone. A man who, as Sorkin put it, had “his nose pressed up against the window of social life” at Harvard would end up with 500 million friends. But how strong can these ties be, and how real are these friendships?
That’s the whole problem with cyber-activism: the virtual world rarely corresponds directly to the real world. So you can feel as if you’re creating friendships and spending more time socialising with people, when actually you’re probably spending less time in the real world. And just so with political activism: you feel as if you’re participating in movements if you follow a political group on Facebook or Tweet about environmentalism and the budget cuts, but you don’t take action in the real world. You often do less, having already assuaged any guilt by doing something minor but worthy online.
The political theorist Michael Walzer asked the students involved in sit-ins what the atmosphere was like: “The answer was always the same: ‘It was like a fever. Everyone wanted to go’,” he wrote in his book Dissent. The key feature about cyber-politics seems to be that if you can catch political activism like a fever, it spreads much more quickly online: if the civil rights movement had been organised online, Martin Luther King would have gained thousands of followers within hours. However, the fever isn’t as lasting or as potent, so these followers won’t necessarily translate to participants in sit-ins. Cyber-activism is more like a 24-hour bug — a temporary shock to the system, but not life-changing.