I fell in love with the English Lake District as a boy, and I’ve wanted to live there all my life. But since my home and family are thousands of miles away in upstate New York I’ve had to make do with contacts and connections via social media, supplemented by the occasional dose of walking in the hills.
For the longest time I saw my web surfing and Facebook chatting as a poor substitute for being there in person, but I’ve come to realize that both the ‘actual’ and the ‘virtual’ are part of the same reality—just experienced in different ways. Since I have so little ‘free’ time anyway—like most people in these days of over-burdened late-stage capitalism—I couldn’t spend more of my days tramping over mountains even if I wanted to.
The contributors to Transformation’s special series on social media seem to have come to the same conclusion: organizing face-to-face and activism on the internet aren’t, or shouldn’t be, substitutes for one another. Instead, their different characteristics can be combined for mutual benefit—just as I can follow climbs on a webcam that I can’t physically do myself.
It’s surely a good thing that social media make certain aspects of social activism easier, like connecting across different geographies and making vital information more accessible. They also make it possible to accommodate different levels of commitment that suit the circumstances of different people. Not every activist has to sit at a lunch counter in Greensboro or stand in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square. What matters is that the whole ‘ecosystem’ of social change is healthy and well-connected.
In any case, history has already by-passed the sterile debate on whether social media are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for activism, since social movements have always incorporated the latest innovations in communications technology into their work. Tom Paine wasn’t criticized for writing his pamphlets on newsprint instead of parchment or clay tablets; nor was Martin Luther King admonished for picking up the telephone when organizing the March on Washington DC in 1963. So why would activists today eschew the latest social media advances?
The real question is the one that’s been posed in different ways throughout this special series: where’s the ‘sweet spot’ between online and offline action?
In theory it’s easy to find an answer to this question. Face-to-face engagement is vital in directly confronting those in power, mobilizing high levels of lasting commitment to a cause, and persuading people to open and change their minds. At its heart, social transformation is a physical, visceral experience, because it demands deep changes in human behavior and relationships.
But social media make it possible for much larger numbers of people to access information, make connections, and feed their views into decision making and debates, and to do so at a speed, cost and reach that could never be replicated in face-to-face encounters. That’s because direct democracy and pre-figurative politics demand continuous inter-personal negotiation.
In practice however, these ‘sweet spots’ are much more difficult to find. For one thing, virtual activism is easier and less demanding, so it could become a substitute for more intensive actions on the ground. To continue with my Lake District analogy, actually climbing a mountain like Scafell Pike takes much more energy than watching someone else as they struggle to the top via a camera feed to my computer. Following me on twitter is a lot less stressful than following me to jail.
For another, are Facebook and twitter neutral tools for communication, or could they alter values and behavior in ways that dilute the transformative potential of social action—especially when corporations want to shape our social media activities in ways that benefit their own commercial interests?
Unfortunately, there’s surprisingly little unbiased research around these questions, partly because there’s a tendency to argue ‘for’ or ‘against’ social media in order to prove a predetermined point (and sell more books along the way).
But on the first question—does more online participation lead to less offline involvement—the answer is probably ‘no,’ though both reshape each other in a variety of ways.
It’s true that some traditional forms of activism (like labor unions) are declining, but those trends were set in motion well before the arrival of social media. They are also counterbalanced, at least to some extent, by the arrival of new forms of activism in which social media play a vital role—like the street protests that have proliferated from the Arab Spring to Occupy. None of these protests were ‘Facebook or twitter revolutions’ (93 per cent of communications between activists in Cairo’s Tahrir Square turned out to be face-to-face), but the extra connectivity provided by social media did help people to create, expand and sustain them.
In similar fashion, the popularity of online petitions has made them a standard feature of social media, but making connections in other ways—by sharing information, coordinating action, advertizing protests, and developing collective strategies across large numbers of participants—are equally if not more important. Groups like Avaaz and Making Change at Walmart show that synergies can be built between online and offline action if there’s a deliberate intent to do so.
On the second question of values and behavior, there’s a common fear that social media will harden in-group ties and make bridge-building harder. That’s because—online or offline—people tend to congregate in like-minded groups. The fractures and inequalities that already exist in society are replicated in the virtual world, not diluted or extinguished, and that makes it more difficult to forge connections and alliances across pre-existing differences (an essential component of successful political action). Against this background, it’s unrealistic to expect online activism to be free from the same distortions, especially because the anonymity of the web allows people to hide in the shadows. The internet isn’t exactly known for cultivating empathy.
In addition, the distinctive culture of social media—a high-adrenalin mix of speed, instant feedback, information overload and never-ending availability—may encourage a degree of superficiality, or at least an over-simplification of problems and solutions. Shorter attention spans are unlikely to make people more willing to grapple with the complexities of social change. There’s also a kind of ceaseless, unreflective energy online that seems constantly in search of self promotion. By contrast, asks Niki Seth-Smith in her contribution to the series, “what would happen if we all thought twice?”
That sounds like wise advice to me, and it provides at least a partial response to the fears of social media skeptics: be reflective about the internet but don’t ignore it. Pause before you click, read books as well as blogs, talk and listen to your colleagues in real time (and don’t send touchy messages by email), get together in your communities, meditate, chill out, and listen to the silence of the dawn—and then get back online whenever it makes sense.
No-one is forced to surf the web 24 hours a day, and when we do open our computers it’s perfectly possible to be discriminating. Few people, it seems to me, are genuinely “addicted to the internet.” It can be a powerful ‘drug’ for sure, but if we read and follow the ‘instructions on the label,’ the benefits should outweigh the costs.
That’s always assuming that people can write and follow their own ‘instructions’ on the internet, rather than be duped, bribed or manipulated by corporations who want to use it for their own ends. Who owns and controls the infrastructure of the internet—its algorithms, codes and servers—will ultimately determine the uses to which it’s put.
These points are sometimes ignored by activists or relegated to the domain of pointy-headed geeks, but they are critical to preserving the transformational potential of social media. Online activism provides a refuge when offline spaces are closed down, but it’s also vulnerable to the same authoritarian and commercial pressures.
The truth is that we don’t know the answers to any of the questions that I’ve posed. The evidence isn’t there one way or another, and its significance is constantly debated. Perhaps in fifty years time we’ll be able to say whether online activism complements or substitutes for the offline kind, and whether human beings are indeed becoming wired for a different future. But for now, the most important task is to experiment with using both together, and to make adjustments along the way.
Social media are defined by their technology, but—codes and algorithms notwithstanding—their impact depends on people. That’s because it’s people who make the decisions on how, when and where social media are used.
We can email each other plenty of directions, but the transformation of society remains a deeply human journey.