Journalists like nothing better than to talk about themselves. But this has gone beyond us. There’s a battle out there about the role of Social Media. It’s the evangelists v the sceptics. Right now, the sceptics are gaining ground. But I think they’ll concede it in the long run.
I stand with the converted – thanks to @clareward1e and the BBC’s Social Media workshops. In the last twelve months, I’ve made new contacts all over the world via Twitter. And since August, I’ve been exploring the business of new media as a Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard.
I signed up for my first course with Nicco Mele at the Harvard Kennedy School. The man who ran Howard Dean’s online campaign for the White House – putting internet politics on the map (no, he didn’t talk about The Iowa Scream) – told us, “to understand the digital age, you need to live it.” His Media, Politics, Power course required us to get tech-savvy. It meant a lot of online “homework” as we bought domain names, set up blogs, workshopped with the Wikimedia Institute, and joined LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. For starters.
It also meant diving into the flurry of debate about about new media networks, e-politics and e-government. Of course, CoJo readers know more than most about the ideas and initiatives flying on all three fronts. But here’s my two cents, for what it’s worth, on the value of social media.
Gladwell described Twitter disdainfully as a way to stream “feel good” exchanges about the challenges of our time, rather than a tool to contribute to meaningful social change. “Weak ties seldom lead to high risk activism”.
The onslaught wasn’t just philosophical, it was personal. That day, I was taking another Harvard class with new media evangelist Clay Shirky – the author of “Here Comes Everybody” and “Cognitive Surplus” – and the target of much of Gladwell’s ammunition. The class, on New Media and Public Action, was analysing the role of media from Twitter to Facebook to Ushahidi in coordinating social movements like the Green Uprising in Iran, the Mad Cow protests in South Korea, and the Association of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women in India.
We emailed back and forth about it – Shirky acknowledging that it’s easy to overstate the role of social media – Iran being the obvious example. “ Twitter was a shiny object in the Anglo-American media environment, and we looked at those uprisings using a mirror instead of a lens.”
But still, Shirky and those on his side in the social media wars insist that the role of the new networks, the power of online organising, is an historic development. And I’m with them.
Just look at a handful of recent examples. The organisation of British protests against Vodaphone in October. The experience of Rio’s favela dwellers during riots in November. The Queensland Police Service providing its latest information on the Brisbane floods. All using Twitter.
Where I do think the Sceptics are right is this. It’s not smart to be starry-eyed about Social Media now. It’s not automatically on the side of the angels if it ever was. From the US government demanding access to the tweets of Wikileaks supporters, to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard trying to monitor dissident activists, it’s clear – you can be watched, you can be followed, and you can be punished for your thought crimes.
And who’s stopping the most unsavoury regimes playing you at your own game – subverting your cause online? That’s the argument developed by Evgeny Morozov in his new book “The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World”. And yes it makes sobering reading.
So, it’s not so much that The Revolution Will Be Tweeted. But it’s foolish to deny that today’s revolutionaries will have twitter in their arsenal. It’s too late to put our heads in the sand, as if we can choose between online and off. Journalist, activist, politician, diplomat : we’re all in the digital world together.
UPDATE 14 Feb 2011 – after Tunisia, after Egypt – here’s a smart & succinct overview by Jay Rosen – thanks to Martin Mackerel for your comment.
Philippa Thomas is a BBC News Special Correspondent on sabbatical at Harvard. She tweets at @BBCPhilippaT and blogs at http://www.philippathomas.com