In June of 2009, a movement of Iranians mobilized to protest the apparent re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The government moved to suppress dissenting voices by censoring text messages, blogs, and other forms of communication. Observers around the world got excited not only about the prospect of change in Iran but also about the cyber-window through which they could watch the streets teeming with green-garbed, freedom-seeking young Iranians. Twitter users added green to their profile pictures and retweeted anything about Iran to show solidarity, in the hope that they might play some marginal role in changing the world. The U.S. State Department even asked Twitter to reschedule a system upgrade so as not to disrupt the ability of Iranians to coordinate or broadcast via its network. In the intervening year, much of the hype surrounding Twitter’s centrality to the revolutionary happenings in Tehran has deflated. After all, as Hamid Tehrani, the Iran editor at Global Voices, points out in The Guardian, while “Twitter was important in publicising what was happening . . . the west was focused not on the Iranian people but on the role of western technology.”
Malcolm Gladwell, writer of best-selling books breaking down the complexities of sociology, took to the pages of The New Yorker this month to poke a few jabs at those who put too much faith in the ability of social media as a force for social change. The article, subtitled “Why the revolution will not be tweeted,” revisits the sit-ins of the 1960s that played a pivotal role in desegregation and the organizational tactics that made them successful. He posits that when we give tools like Facebook and YouTube credit for their roles in popular uprisings, “we seem to have forgotten what activism is.”
In his attempt to contrast mouse-click activism with boots-on-the-ground organizing, Gladwell too often relies on knocking down straw-man social media evangelists to put Facebook and Twitter in their place. “The evangelists of social media,” he mocks, “seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960.” He goes on: “Enthusiasts for social media would no doubt have us believe that [Martin Luther] King’s task in Birmingham would have been made infinitely easier had he been able to communicate with his followers through Facebook, and contented himself with tweets from a Birmingham jail.”
Gladwell’s tone seems intended to spark reaction, and it has. Of the many responses, Jeremy Brecher and Brendan Smith, writing in AlterNet, perhaps do the best job of course-correcting the topic:
Social networking websites are not a form of organization at all; they are a means of communication. Comparing Twitter to the NAACP is like comparing a telephone to a PTA. They are not the same thing, they don’t perform the same kind of functions and therefore their effectiveness or lack thereof simply can’t be compared.
Gladwell dwells heavily on the “strong ties” of person-to-person relationships that develop in the real world of churches and neighborhoods versus the “weak ties” among those with a common interest in, say, sharing cartoons via email. The former, he asserts, is the only reliable bond for the discipline of activism. Gladwell asks, “Of what use would a digital communication tool be in a town where ninety-eight per cent of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church?” Of course, the movement did not coordinate protests only at Sunday morning services. Gladwell touts the alternative transportation organized for the Montgomery bus boycott, but surely such a network might have been easier if the workers needing assistance to get to their jobs could have accessed a website or Facebook network to request a ride?
While getting everyone together in the same room is a core strategy of organizing and motivating, online communication offers an opportunity for sharing information in real time rather than waiting for the next church service or neighborhood potluck. The question is whether such workers can be found on Facebook.
A recent demographic survey of Facebook users reveals 90% to have a high school diploma, though only 21% completed a Bachelors or Graduate degree. 68% earn more than $50,000 annually. If political actors are building consensus from social media users, therefore, they are missing the voices of less educated, lower-income workers. And the workers who are being organized are likely being reached through neighborhood groups.
Farhang Rouhani, in “The Spatial Politics of Leisure: Internet Use and Access in Tehran, Iran,” relates that Internet use in Iran is primarily available in urban areas like Tehran, which is the first accessibility concern. For those with physical access to Internet-enabled venues, “the leisure time to spend an afternoon at a cybercafe is much more a marker of affluence than it is a real possibility for the working class of Tehran, unless the individual happens to be unemployed or underemployed, in which case the monetary question of cost becomes even more significant.”
Assuming workers were among those clashing with security forces on the streets of Tehran, Rouhani’s analysis frowns on the likelihood they were contributing any tweets.
So, about that revolution? To evaluate the role of social media in activism, we need to do what Gladwell did not: look at contemporary examples where online networking has translated into street-level action. In the summer of 2007, here in Youngstown, the City had drawn up plans to redesign West Federal Street, a main downtown thoroughfare, doing away with tree-lined medians and parallel parking in favor of a more strip-mall feel, with angled parking and no medians. In any other decade, this might have passed without comment in Youngstown. But there was a new secret weapon in play: a listserv hosted by the Youngstown Business Incubator (YBI), whose headquarters fronted Federal Street. The YBI, which hosted several growing software businesses, and the young professionals in its network, saw attracting people to Federal Street as a key to downtown’s revitalization and viewed the City’s plans with alarm. Using the listserv, a network of 30-40 people shared information about the plans and how to prepare for an upcoming public meeting. An online petition gathered 695 signatures to show the force of the public opposed to the plans, and a small impromptu committee coordinated through email and a few in-person meetings to draft talking points for the campaign.
All of the online conversing could have been for naught had the turnout in front of City Council not materialized. Partly as a result of coverage of the petition in traditional media, those who turned out reached beyond the online community to include leaders and members of local churches and neighborhood associations. The City recognized the broad-based resistance and created a compromise plan that incorporated more medians and less angled parking. Maybe not a revolution, but our local online organizing has made a difference in the life of the city.
Gladwell’s central thesis is not wrong: social change happens through people speaking out by showing up. This is true regardless of the focus of the movement, for the struggle for democracy in Iran as much as for the fight for labor and immigrant rights in the U.S. But discounting the ability in our modern age to motivate people through the use of modern tools is mere neo-luddism. Yes, there are limits to online organizing. While access to the internet has broadened over the past decade, Americans do not yet have equal access to online tools. Social media works well for organizing professionals, as we saw in Youngstown, but it has not reached its full potential for poor and working-class communities.
Returning to the Iran protests, Hamid Tehrani puts things in perspective: “The cornerstone of this movement is not technology, it’s people.” People weren’t online in the 1960s, so it’s impossible to know whether Martin Luther King Jr. would have tweeted, “I have a dream. Meet me at the Lincoln Memorial on the 28th 4 more!” Today, however, the force of online organizing is proven potent at the local and national levels and will be integral to campaigns for change in any arena. To see the fullest potential of online organizing, the Internet must continue to become more accessible across divisions of education and income.