Social Media and Social Change: An Evolving Narrative

There’s a quote from Li & Bernoff’s book Groundswell that I loved (and still love, actually) and always tried to work into presentations back in the day when introducing organizations to social media tools was a full-time gig for a communications consultant. The quote goes like this:

“Social media is a social trend in which people use technologies to get what they need from each other rather than from traditional institutions.” It was exciting in 2008, to consider all the good that could come from the connections the technology seemed to make possible.

But, obviously, a lot has changed since 2008, when Groundswell was first published. Social technologies, tools and channels have grown immensely becoming almost ubiquitous.  Consequently, the use of social technologies by social change movements and social service professionals has also grown.  The narrative about the role of social media in social change has shifted as well.

As someone now wading into that narrative stream for the next few weeks, I thought I that might start this series of posts by looking at some ways that the story about social media for social change has unfolded since Web 2.0 tools took off in 2008-09.

This is by no means the full story. Just  a thin sliver of the evolving narrative on social media and social change to get us started.

A Star is Born

How did the connection between social media as a tool for social change first develop? A key early link seems to have been forged during the Iranian student uprising in 2009.  This was the first of the Arab Spring uprisings labeled as a “Twitter Revolution”. Though the use of Twitter by Iranian activists was actually quite limited, a new meme had been born. The narrative was reinforced during the 2011 uprisings in Egypt, where the use of social media channels as an organizing tool was genuinely significant.


Photo by Awais Chaudhry

“In Tahrir Square I sat one morning next to a 60-year-old surgeon cheerfully tweeting his involvement in the protest,” wrote a reporter for the Guardian. “The barricades today do not bristle with bayonets and rifles, but with phones.”

Today the use of social media is a through line the runs through much coverage of social change movements.

Skeptics vs. Evangelists

One of the early controversies about the effectiveness of social media as a tool for social change broke out in October 2010 with the publication of Malcolm Gladwell’s takedown piece in the New Yorker.  In the article, Gladwell, best known as the popularizer of the tipping point and himself no stranger to public derision, took full aim at social media advocates, taking them to task for overvaluing the role of social technology as a tool for social change. Don’t believe the hype, Gladwell warned. Social media was good for somethings, of course. It could be used to quickly mobilize networks of people to take quick low-risk actions, like signing up to bone marrow donors.  But it couldn’t and wouldn’t create the kinds of committed relationships that real social change requires. “Where activists were once defined by their causes,” Gladwell wrote in frustration. “They are now defined by their tools.”

Several months later, in early 2011, Clay Shirky, one of the evangelists singled by Gladwell in his New Yorker piece, responded with a long article in Foreign Affairs. Shirky admitted that social media—which which he categorized as text messaging, e-mail, photo sharing, social networking “and the like”—had a mixed track record. Sure, social tools could be said blamed for created cadre of slacktivists, folks whose activism was limited to thumbing-up posts. But, beyond that social media had become, according to Shirky, the coordinating tool of choice for organizers. Gladwell’s critique was “correct but not central to the question of social media’s power; the fact that barely committed actors cannot click their way to a better world does not mean that committed actors cannot use social media effectively.”

Occupying the New World

Like its peers in the Middle East Occupy Wall Street, or the Occupy movement, as its come to be known is claimed both by skeptics and evangelists as an example of the power and limits of social media for social change. We’re told that Occupy organizers relied on social media extensively but also that fearful of surveillance they avoided social tools at key points. Regardless, by the time Occupy Wall Street moved into Zucotti Park in September of 2011, social media had already redefined how social change activists went about their business.

Here’s a nice summary from a 2011 issue of Wired:

“From the beginning, the core of the Occupy movement has  been the same distributed network of small protests groups….Whether or not they see technology as their primary means of organizing, technology is utterly crucial in the way their whole model works —keeping connected without the benefit (or detriment, as the case may be) of a central authority.”

And here, by the way, is what some of the Occupy activists are up to today

Facing the Dark Side of the Force

The experience of the Arab Spring, Occupy, and work down by cyber-skeptics, such as Evgeny Morozov, all demonstrate that social media can be a boon and a threat to progressive social change.

Smart dictators, Morozov has pointed out repeatedly, take full advantage of social media to monitor, disrupt and to destroy movements and activists. If social media can be used to dispel propaganda it can also be used to propagate rumors and to discredit change agents.

Activists who use social media to organize can use it to turn on each other in ugly and self-defeating ways. For more on that, check out this frank Ted Talk by Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian engineer who launched the Facebook page most associated with the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.

And since technology is morally neutral, it works equally well for activists of all stripes. ISIS is said to be winning the social media war. And so is this guy.

What’s Next?

Predictably, the narrative about the role of social tools in social movements continues to evolve. You won’t be surprised to learn that topic of social media use in the Arab Spring has launched a thousand research projects. Here’s a 7-page literature review with three pages and 109 sources cited just about the role of Twitter alone. And the narrative arc as presented in the popular press will keep changing, and changing, and changing.

While researchers and journalists construct a narrative by looking back at past events, funders in the philanthropic sector seem to be trying to look forward to anticipate the  changes in organizational structures and leadership models required in a social media enabled world. More on that in the coming weeks.

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