By Andrew Kelly
On April 18th, 1775, Paul Revere gathered himself and set off at mid-night riding North, as Malcolm Gladwell writes, to warn the resistance that the British were indeed coming. He was able to effectively galvanise them and had them ready and waiting. This ability to provoke such a response is what Gladwell calls, in his book The Tipping Point, the role of the connector. In many ways, this is precisely what Facebook and Twitter have come to be represented as; connectors, facilitators of action, mobilisers of movements, the Paul Revere’s of the internet.
For sometime now, the advent of Facebook, Twitter and the like have been illustrated as playing the same heroic role. Beginning in Moldova 2009, headlines were circulated that a ‘Twitter Revolution’ was under way. Shortly afterward, similar suggestions – although considerably tempered by the criticisms of quite a few – had Iran, and the rest of the Arab Uprising, being branded liberally as the same, albeit with various other prefixes.
However, what bellies these “weapons of mass mobilisation” are two concerns that need to be considered. One of which is highlighted perfectly well in Evgeny Morozov’s, The Net Delusion; which balances the novelty of e-tools in greatly socialising and politicising an issue, by highlighting the potential for governments to utilise these same tools in order to pre-empt, mitigate, or spin this information. What this argument does is invert the liberal representation of these e-tools by techno-optimists, by revealing something potentially more reminiscent of an Orwellian world. As Graham Stack, writing on Natalia Morar’s instrumental role in the Moldova ‘revolution’, notes, “she found it ironic that the tools she used to launch a revolution could now potentially betray her whereabouts.”
A second potential issue, however, requires a little more attention. With an increasing number of people on the internet and the endless proliferation of information by social media tools (e-tools) – via posts, feeds and alerts – the likelihood that these copious streams of information could overwhelm a number of people and inhibit them from acting in any meaningful way is quite real. This aspect of e-tools is best understood by the psychological phenomenon called the bystander effect. It holds that the ability of a bystander/witness to intervene in a heightened situation is greatly diminished in the presence of a larger group of witnesses. And therefore this raises a flag over the growing relationship between the social media (which increases the scope of witnesses) and protest movements, as we shall examine a little later on.
But first, how were social movements mobilised in the days of yore?
It is only in 2009 in Iran, and then again with more carriage in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, that Facebook and Twitter strongly emerge as the tools to mobilise activists swiftly. Commentators, however, continue to debate whether Facebook and Twitter deserve all the recognition they’re getting. On one hand, there have been calls for these tools to be nominated for a Nobel Peace prize. And on the other, skeptics – not luddites – challenge the accessibility to these tools in countries such as Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. There already exists a significant corpus of literature on the subject that has amassed through the writings of commentators and journalists such as Morozov, Golnaz Esfandiari, Laurie Penny, et cetera that are worth reading through to get a sense of the validity for their concerns.
Malcolm Gladwell, writing in The New Yorker, addresses the aforementioned question by examining the Greensboro riots of the 1960s. Here, Gladwell points out that mobilisation or social activism, before the days of Facebook and Twitter, was largely done through personal networks built upon personal associations. A brother, a cousin, an uncle, a friend (not acquaintance) working with the movement tangibly linked a concerned group to the movement. Gladwell calls these links “strong-ties”. The knowledge that someone known to you is involved in a movement, or is a victim of an act of repression can spur a large number of people who are pivoted around that person to mobilise should a situation arise. Paul Revere was one such person. He knew everyone and everyone certainly knew him. But he was more than just the ultimate mutual-friend on Facebook, he was the Facebook. He was connected, and therefore a connector. But, more importantly, his network consisted of strong-ties – bonds that are required in order for a movement to be sustained over a long period of time.
In contrast to strong ties, Gladwell associates weak-ties with e-tools. Weak-ties are those informal relationships that typify online social media and networking. They link a series of acquaintances that could not be maintained under normal conditions. And therefore in regard to movements, while e-tools may increase participation “by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires”, it does not imply a ‘connection’ in the deeper sense of the term. Neither does it guarantee that virtual participation will translate into actual mobilisation. And therefore, while Facebook and Twitter may have aided the recent series of protests it stands to be asked if they can continue to sustain social activism through weak-ties?
The Bystander-Effect meets Social Media Tools
On March 13th, 1964, Catherine Genovese was murdered at 3 am in New York. What made this particularly significant was the fact that 38 people witnessed the crime, from their windows that lined the streets to her apartment, and yet no one went to her aid. At the time the story came out, newspapers reported that nobody had even alerted the police. The sharpest accusation had sensationally claimed that the generation had slipped into apathy. And so, almost all psychology texts-books now have a whole chapter on what has been termed bystander apathy. A condition where the initiative for action on the part of the observer diminishes inversely in relation to the number of observers witnessing the same event. What occurs is said to be a diffusion of responsibility whereby the ability for one to initiate a response is psychologically hindered as one begins to assume that the other will/should respond (among other things). And yet while these claims have been contested steadily over the years most of the criticisms challenge only the aspect of apathy, which has only given way to the more acceptable term; the bystander-effect.
The problem with Facebook and Twitter, setting aside Morozov’s big-brother argument, is that it has the potential to fuse the bystander effect (someone else will do something) with the complementary condition called, slacktivism (the appeasing belief that virtual involvement is actual involvement). Twitter and Facebook amplify this problématique in relation to social activism. Vast feeds from NGOs, IGOs, charities, News-networks, tabloids, and user-generated petitions exacerbate these two conditions by flooding the walls of a single user with an insoluble amount of information, turning him into a ‘slacktivist’. This is the peculiar personality that astutely “Likes” Kony 2012, No Sweat, Save the Giant Panda, Nike and Fox News on the same day, before reassuringly returning to FarmVille.
Social-media tools may have their benefits, but they also entail certain impediments for both the activist and the bystander. One, while it allows for an upcoming generation to participate by simply associating themselves with causes, issues, and movements online, it also reduces the need to materialise these commitments in the real world. Understandably, this is harder to do as it may involve a fair amount of risk. And more relevantly time, as it requires one to form strong-ties to the people and issues concerned at the grass-root level. Not weak-ties that embody “social loafing” – otherwise known as the Ringelmann Effect.
Two, the proliferation of various pleas for help dispersed by e-tools require a discerning netizenary to ensure that an informed action or response will be taken – if and when required – while acknowledging the unintended bystander and slacktivist effects of social-media tools. It is not implied here that every message or cause should elicit a response, but rather the point to dwell on is that there is a rendering of apathy in the virtual world that is more potent than in the actual.
Finally, e-tools create more bystanders than activists, and it may be well worth researching how these tools could be effectively used to translate weak-ties of the virtual into strong-ties of the actual. One way to do this, suggests this ironic telecom commercial, is to reassert the importance of (re)humanising our interactions – to “disconnect to connect”. Perhaps then we can start to reclaim causes – to paraphrase Gladwell – that were once defined by people, and not by their tools.
On April 18th, 1775, William Dawes, gathered himself and set-off riding at mid-night, but in the opposite direction to Paul Revere. He had the same mission, rode the same miles and yet, writes Gladwell, where Revere succeeded, Dawes failed. Revere had been a person who had created strong-ties and lots of them, whereas Dawes had not. And while, at the moment, Facebook and Twitter and numerous other e-tools are constructed as the Paul Revere’s of the internet, they are yet to prove if they can sustain their ties. In the long run they may just prove to ride like Dawes, informing everyone, but mobilising none.