Roughly synthesizing insights on the utility of Twitter, facebook, LinkedIn, etc., in the context of social movements. These ideas are not new, but worth repeating because using social media is standard in North American and the basics are important to re-visit. Some summaries:
Malcolm Gladwell’s angle from 2010 in the New Yorker: The idea of strong ties and weak ties between people is presented. Sit-ins in 1960 in segregated North Carolina are used as examples of strong ties. They involved groups of people who were good friends living in the same dorms at college together taking stands (sits, more accurately) against the established racist order. Weak ties, on the other hand, can be seen in facebook groups where the only connection within the group is that they “like” the page and maybe get some notifications. No action is required, and the connection is largely impersonal. Weak ties don’t work well for organizing to confront power in high-risk situations, like event organization, public art installation, blockades, boycotts, occupations, etc. That requires strong ties between people and all that comes with them: trust, understanding compassion, etc.
Zeynep Tufekci’s recent peice in the NYTimes: Social media lets people skip the long intensive task of organizing a cohesive action around a commonly-felt sentiment. Quoting form the article: “Before the internet, the tedious work of organizing that was required to circumvent censorship or to organize a protest also helped build infrastructure for decision making and strategies for sustaining momentum.” This organizational infrastructure can now be non-existent and tens of thousands of people can still get out into the streets if news of something, like an unjustified murder by the state, is circulated via social media. Building from Gladwell’s terminology, we’re seeing a lot of weak-tie gatherings, and they fail to coalesce into effective long-term social movements perhaps since they lack strong ties. This article is very similar to Gladwell’s. What is worth noting is that it is published 4 years later, which seems to indicate that the problem persists and has not been overcome in general.
Noam Chomsky in two interviews with David Barsamian from 2012 in the book Power Systems: Chomsky brings in the sociological term secondary associations: “groups that interact and construct spaces in which people can formulate ideas, test them, begin to understand human relations and learn what it means to cooperate with one another.” Chomsky, who admits to being an outside observer of social media and not an expert, believes that social media being one’s main outlet to the world leads to atomization, a term he uses frequently in the book (including to discuss the entire political left in North America) to mean the separating of people from each other, isolating, fragmenting. He does acknowledge that social media can be powerful for maintaining connections, and I would add that it can be powerful in helping people who are isolated get connected. But, for social movements, it is no substitute for getting together. At the time of the interviews (2012), Occupy the Dream had some momentum he was excited about (HuffPo articles here). Occupy the Dream was about going beyond protesting and involved citizens fixing problems in their communities, taking matters into their own hands. The visibility of this movement has since almost completely evaporated, (as with Occupy more generally). This could be because it is so diffuse and multi-issued so hard to cover in the media, or the momentum could really have dissipated. It’s hard to tell. We’re kind of in the middle of a lull from cnetrally focused activity and we don’t have the documents together to know what is happening. This is an exciting moment of uncertainty, because, with the history unsettled, there are opportunities to shape the course of events.
Regarding social media, I can only state the obvious: there’s no substitute for face-to-face interaction. Social media can help make that happen, but it can’t substitute for it. It’s not like the answer is either the electronic tools or the physical ones. It’s both. The question is constantly “how do we make these tools work together?” Some people and groups are doing it. I’m excited for Canada to warm up, and for the possibilities of face-to-face interaction that brings. For example, two walks will bring people together this summer: Peuples pour la Terre Mere (People for Mother Earth) along pipeline routes in Quebec (join any time from May 10 – June 14), and The Tar Sands Healing Walk (read about last year’s walk) in Alberta June 26-29. LeadNow’s Connect events are cool. Porpoise B Consulting (this organization) is planning on putting together another edition of Camp Fun in the City. There are lots of other people organizing gathering events in coming months, so keep on the look out!