In a recent piece in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell argues that the revolution will never be tweeted because social media lack the capacity to nurture, let alone sustain, high-risk activism. His example is a good one. He briefly (and poetically) recounts the history of the lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro. His take home argument? Organizations, leadership and money matter because they ease the pains of mobilizing and face-to-face interactions are critical to building the trust and commitment necessary to engage in the
kind of activism that will affect change. I don’t completely disagree with his argument. Organizations, money and leaders matter and face-to-face interaction is important to high-risk activism. Most people, however, will go their whole lives and never defy authorities using confrontation tactics. Most folks, in other words, never engage in high-risk activism and that fact predates social media.
Given this reality, what is the potential of social media? I agree with Gladwell that social media is unlikely to become an important way for a majority of social movement organizations to collect money for their causes. I do think, however, Gladwell doesn’t give social media its due. There are at least two important functions that social media can (not will) play in social change.
Political knowledge. Social media can be used to share information with thousands of people quickly. While knowledge in-and-of-itself may not lead to participation, it is an important precursor.
Creating community. Although some scholars are skeptical of the ability of Internet communication generally to create an identifiable community, when a student and I interviewed members of the group MoveOn in 2005-2006 and 2008-2009, virtually all of our respondents cited the importance of online venues for linking them to a “community” of like-minded thinkers. It was feeling part of this larger community that made folks decide to attend that first meeting.
This points to another problem with much of the commentary on social movements. There is a focus on the unusual rather than the commonplace. Given this media reality these two functions of social media — political knowledge and creating community — are too mundane for the nightly news and pages of the New Yorker. Nevertheless, they are the building blocks of democratic participation.