The social Social

(Written for Futuron. Original post can be found here. Images used are not mine. Original copyrights apply)

When I typed this title out, MS Word promptly asked me if I felt like deleting the repeated word. I asked it to ignore instead, as I was referring to the world of social activism with the former and media with the latter. But may be, even the computer realizes that these two really are strange bedfellows. And if the events of the last couple of years have told us anything, it is indeed that these namesake phenomena do have a strange relationship.

There is a popular view point that internet in general and the advent of social networking in particular have definitely altered the way people come together in situations of social unrest, in a manner that makes it easier to build momentum for a cause. Clearly, the mainstream media loves this speel and is even a strong advocate of this. Every day we see TV news stories and magazine cover stories about how Facebook and Twitter have galvanized a protest here and an uprising there.

On the other side, there is also the cynical view that social media activism is at best arm chair activism, where all that is expected of the user is a click to like or Retweet or at their strenuous best, a blog post. As far as ‘social revolutions’ go, even for the much talked about Iranian uprising of ’09 or the more recent political turnarounds in Tunisia and Egypt, there is a lot of doubt and the speculation on the scale at which social media really helped these events.

Personally, I would hate to call any society’s revolution a ‘Twitter’ or a ‘Facebook’ effect, as I feel that completely belittles the movement, which at the end of the day can only belong to the people, whose hunger or suffering or injustice it really is about. So what is the difference that social networking makes? When NBC Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel was asked how people in Tahrir Square communicated with each other as well as the rest of the World, he said “People were communicating mostly by cell phone.  That was the overwhelming source of communications and information distribution….When they thought that the cell phones weren’t safe, or that the cell phone messages weren’t safe, they would switch to Twitter.  Then, when they thought Twitter messages were compromised, they would switch to Facebook….And then, of course, when the government shut it down, people just started talking to each other.”

A social network in any developing or 3rd World nation will never be representative of the entire nation, as it is a function of internet penetration and access to computing / mobile devices, both of which are likely to be scarce in these regions. Even if it is an event happening in a developed country (like the more recent & more notorious London riots), the ratio of the number of people discussing it on social media to the number that is on the ground is going to be fairly miniscule. So it does not bring scale. It is unfair to expect it to.

So then, is it useful to mobilize finances? The US Red Cross has about 365,000 followers on Facebook. A recent study revealed that about 3% of its donations come from online. Social media is probably going to be a fraction of that. On the other hand, their $10 SMS campaign in the US for Haiti relief work, which was backed by the US State Department, brought in almost a Million Dollars in donation, in just a few days.

I have personally not come across a case where significant financial contribution has been mobilized for a cause, purely on social media. The problem is also infrastructure related to a certain extent. Most social networks do not have credit or payment capabilities at this point. FB credits is probably the most significant move in this direction, but it will be some time before this virtual currency can be leveraged in the real world. So for now, all we can do is amplify the message by sharing links to payment portals on FB and Twitter, something that has not found too many takers as it involves leaving the platform.

How about advocacy for the cause? Malcolm Gladwell, in a recent article on The New Yorker, had compared social media activism to the ‘Greensboro4’ and how the dynamics are completely different. Of course. For four colored students to walk into and sit-in inside a racist restaurant in the 1960s, or for a young man to step out into Tahrir square risking physical injury is an act of bravery. It requires your blood to boil, you mind to have absolute clarity and your heart to believe in something so much, that you would even expose yourself to harm, to achieve it. This cannot be achieved just on a computing device. But then, we knew that already, dint we?

The actual role that social networking plays in a mass social movement in my opinion is not any of these, but that of a mobile PR officer. That of a distress Flare. Imagine a February 1, 1960 with mobile devices and social networks:

  • I am one of the Greensboro 4, walking into the Woolworth restaurant to stage a civil rights sit-in. I walked in because I cared about the real world I live in.
  • I am likely to have a substantial number of colored people from Greensboro as my Facebook & Twitter contacts. I tweet about my sit-in and create an event. A few people RSVP and turn up for it. It is not large enough. But many do RT and share my update.
  • The local newspaper and TV channel (I know, but just continue to imagine, will ya?) reporter who is desperately looking for civil rights news, picks up the Twitter trend and does a small story on it.
  • Suddenly, hundreds in the neighbourhood know about the sit-in and they are all excited. Their blood boils and their heart believes. They step out and talk to each other. Many decide to join.
  • The TV reporter at the venue sees the growing mass and the coverage reaches prime time, nationally. The American civil rights movement gets dubbed as a Twitter revolution!

Nothing wrong with this, except that social media was just an enabler. And that by itself is no mean achievement. It is an enabler that revolutionaries of the past would have loved to have. One that revolutionaries of the future cannot live without. It is our flare! Just as these guys found out in Delhi!