Friday, March 21, 2014

On Social Media PART IV: Organizing and Networking Or The Great Equalizer and The Great Pacifier

So far in my series on social media I have been pretty hard on the Network. I started by ruminating on the possibility of social media being the precursor to the Martix before moving on to examine its use as entertainment and validation. This post however is going to give a nod to the Network because—for better or for worse—it may be the greatest networking and organizing tool ever devised by humanity. From keeping up and reconnecting with old friends to organizing revolutions, social media has created an unprecedented level of access for people to connect across the globe. Whether this is a good or bad thing I will save for PART 5, but for now I would like evaluate some of these uses in the hopes that those who continue to use social media throughout the next decade will use it to bring down corrupt regimes and build real lasting communities.

The most obvious form of networking that is made possible by social media and the Network is access between individual Nodes (if you are joining me for the first time I am using "Node" to designate a point of reference for a person's online identity. I did this instead of using a blasé term like "online identity" because I want to point out that we idealize ourselves online. We paint these pretty pictures and choose just the right words for our posts because we want to open ourselves up to maximum exposure.) Whether we want to entertain or simply be noticed by other Nodes one thing is clear—we want their attention. We want it because the social Network gives us access and the illusion of being connected to them. When our thoughts can be instantly transmitted across the globe then we are eliminating all the space-time it would have otherwise cost to transmit idea X, Y, or Z to all the people in our network. Why have a conversation with one person you haven't spoken to in a decade when you can perfectly craft the same statement and send it blindly to 500 people with ease instead? (The latter seems a lot more efficient, right? I wonder if we would otherwise even tell that one person at all?) Whether to the one or the many I think--at best--we convey these ideas as a means to start a dialogue.

Dialogue has always been my favorite aspect of social media. While I don't think entertainment posts really do this area justice (i.e. "Cosmos" is awesome." or "Where is a good place to eat in West Philly?"  [Followed by comments like: "I know, right?!" or "Abbysina is my jawn!" etc.]), there are however some questions that I find can be much more easily accessed on threads than in the "real world". Recently, I posted an article I wrote entitled "The Table Of Brotherhood Or Race—Can We Talk About It?". It was written as a conversation piece to ask a question—can we talk about this? What ensued after I posted it on social media was an interesting dialogue all its own. It took place in a forum that eliminated the space and time it would have taken several people to get together and talk about it (who probably wouldn't have done so otherwise). Was it a good thing? Maybe. There was of course the emotional dullness of the 1's and 0's of a computer screen and safety of conversing in an online arena, but at least it took place in an equal space. No one could talk over anyone else (though certain vocabulary words still have a way of shutting some people down); no one could yell (though ALL CAPS was always an option for emphasis); and everyone's voice carried equal weight. I am not saying that history was removed or that certain biases still were not brought into the conversation, but the space was everyone's. Such a space created the potential to bring in more voices who would not have otherwise participated in certain conversations because--again, at best--it leveled the playing field. The Network could be the Great Equalizer.

In the same way social media is the ultimate public service announcement. Any organization or institution that does not develop a presence in the Network these days is doomed to failure. Many people get their information solely from social media. There is a reason that Facebook calls it a "News Feed". From breaking news to awareness campaigns and boycotts, social media has created a portal for the instant communication of ideas. However, as I have tried to establish throughout this series, every blessing of social media comes at a price. In this case the cost is the dilution of the passions of the people.

The Network for all its access is not designed as a public forum. It cannot replace the park or agora because there is rarely room for opposing views online. Like attracts like and friend lists inevitably become a—pardon the expression—big circle jerk. When timely issues deserve and desperately need wide public discourse they are instead thrown into rooms of likeminds to be dissected and validated or ravaged. Big mass media outlets have staked their claimed, put down roots, and spread their golden tentacles throughout the Network as well. People's preconceived notions are even reinforced with paid-for banners and ads. Instead of creating debate social media often creates tirades and a circle of reinforcement.

Don't get me wrong. Not all conversations that take place in the Network are paid-for corporate sponsored talking points or circle jerks. Real grassroots initiatives have taken hold as well. Liveblogging has created a level of access and specificity of content that otherwise would be lost to a lot of folks who either cannot or would not attend functions. While sponsored posts are blasted right in front of people's eyes there can also be a plethora of crowdsourced content to compete. In this way the corporate giant can be matched post for post and even drowned out.  Events can also be organized and countless people invited with the click of a button. While this comes with the danger of dilution (I am much less likely to come to an event that someone simply mass invited me to on Facebook than I would be if they called me or sent me a physical invitation. Also, there are SO many events that it is hard to separate the worthwhile ones from the superfluous), it also offers a way to spread the word quickly. Two examples come to mind: The Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street.

The Arab Spring erupted in a blaze of glory so quickly it was hard to keep up. It happened so quickly in large part due to the accessibility and efficiency of social media. For my purposes here I am going to focus on Egypt because I am a little more familiar with what happened there than I am in Tunisia, Bahrain, or Turkey among the many others.

The problems that were endemic in Egyptian society that led to the events of the Arab Spring there were not new. People were being detained, beaten, and oppressed at the hands of a bloody regime for decades before the Movement blossomed. Everyone knew about the abuse, but no one really talked about it. A close Egyptian friend of mine once told me that it used to be essentially taboo to talk about politics. After all what could you do? Then the young people started sharing information on social media. The instant access and ability to share information created waves of education that translated into conversation. Eventually that conversation led to a desire for action, but how could you bring enough people together to make an effective demonstration of strength? Invite them.

Everyone who went down to Tahrir Square did not know each other. As a matter of fact before the great migration to the public space a lot of soon to be comrades would have considered themselves enemies. However, the equal space of the Network provided a platform to share a diversity of ideas that were accessible to all. The idea of resistance was poignant yet big enough to bring millions to the streets. Had the Network not existed then it would have been much more difficult to spread the word. Videos of abuse couldn't have as easily gone viral (because there would be no such thing as "viral"); state television would have shut the protest down; and dissenters would have been rounded up and beaten into submission like they always were before they even got to the Square, but social media made it possible to spread the message so far and so quickly that the government did not have the time, resources, or support to resist.  In the end the masses toppled a dictator all because folks shared an idea that they should resist in the streets and spread the word over the Network.

Secondly, I am a little more familiar with the US partner to the Movement: Occupy Wall Street. Similarly to the Egyptian situation the disease that had infected the American way and led to mass dissent was not new. However, something changed that gave the dissenters a new level of access to each other. There have been many leftist Movements in this country since its inception and even more resistors, but they were not able to reach people with the same audacity of speed that Occupy Wall Street did. It was not long before a couple of tents pitched in New York City became tents pitched across the US. Even the tents were an occupied and crowdsourced idea: Protestors in Spain and other parts of Europe had been occupying their city squares in solidarity with their Egyptian comrades against corruption long before they did on Wall Street. It seemed the whole world was rising up in a similar manner and very quickly. Why? Because we had access to one another and were able to freely share ideas quickly in a public equal space: the Network.

During phase 2 of the Movement—after the camps were demolished—we kept up with each other via social media as well. We started to use the same strategy we had used for the Movement as a whole for individual campaigns: 1) share information, 2) start a conversation, 3) crowdsource a plan, 4) create an invitation, and 5) take the streets. This worked so efficiently because folks did not need to be "activists" to organize or participate. They did not need to feel like they needed some specific knowledge. They simply felt connected because they followed the stories and showed up at events. They felt emboldened to express their rage because they knew that they had comrades long before the event even happened. They could see others supporting the ideas in the form of "likes" and "RSVPs".  Social media created access and a platform.

In the end though social media was the undoing of the Movement for which it breathed life. What started as a tool for a general call to dissent actually provided a platform for passivity. When it became difficult to function in the public forum in the real world due to the old allegiances and the camps being raided and dismantled we began to settle for online correspondence. Daily sit-ins became weekly marches which became monthly assemblies which became online petitions. Our initial surge was due to a volatile level of pressure that had been built up over decades that was made accessible by social media. As that pressure dissipated over time the powers that be were able to capitalize on our divisions and force us into irrelevance. Now a good deal of my friends who I was in the streets, banks, squares, and parks with everyday (myself included) find it satiating enough to share stories on social media in the hopes that the pressure will build up again.

My fear is that the ease of Network posting has become the new public commons and has become an acceptable alternative for public dialogue because, again, very rarely do we engage with those whom we disagree. Social media algorithms do not exist in a vacuum. They are designed by corporations to maximum profits by maximizing exposure. No matter how many "friends" we may have or how many Nodes we are connected to people do not generally like their senses bombarded with principles and ideas that they fundamentally disagree with. Therefore, the Network gives you want: validation of your ideas. We supplement our circle jerk by giving them a hand; we surround ourselves with those who agree with us and pretend like that's building a community. We seem content to be validated. Therefore, the potential for bringing people into the street is pacified by the Network's ability to keep you in your seat.

It has been said that it is a shoddy workman that blames their tools and I have no doubt that social media is one of the greatest tools ever invented for organizing, but, again, it comes at a cost. It seems to have become for the marginally-involved an acceptable alternative for the gritty and grueling real world task of making the world a better place. In this way, the Great Equalizer has become the Great Pacifier.

I was going to end there, but I left out a crucial part of the story and I want to give organizing on social media a fair treatment. It also helped enable one of the most efficient and robust disaster responses in recent memory: Occupy Sandy. Superstorm Sandy—as it has come to be called—was a disaster that no one saw coming. The rising waters and flooding that swept through New York, New Jersey, and parts of Connecticut were far more severe than anyone thought they would be. Hundreds and thousands of people quickly found themselves without homes, electricity, or hope. It happened so totally and quickly that the official disaster response ("Big Response") was not able to keep up. Thankfully, a lot of the lessons that had been learned about how to use social media were able to be utilized.

Within minutes and hours organizers were able to connect to each other and share information about affected areas and needs so that they could start a conversation about how to organize relief hubs for supplies to be delivered and volunteers directed to dispatch. They horizontally crowdsourced a plan and invited the world to join them. Within days the world was stepping up to help the East Coast while the Big Response was still trying to get its pants on. The connections that were able to be maintained within the Network and the access and efficiency of social media were a huge part of the reason Occupy Sandy in New York and New Jersey were able to succeed.

As you can see when social media is used quickly and efficiently in times of great need it is one of the most powerful tools on Earth. However, this power must be constantly checked because it also holds the potential to pacify dissent with the same efficiency that it ignites passions. Extreme access means extreme precautions must be taken to balance social media organizing with real-time "boots on-the-ground" efforts. Otherwise, dire situations that deserve attention may be diluted and lost in the sea of information that the Network contains.

(I should note that I was an organizer with Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Sandy.)

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