‘IF WE REALLY WANT TO MAKE CHANGE, then it’s time we used social media.” We’ve heard this often, but given the experience of the last few years one wonders if it’s accurate. It’s vital, to be sure, but it’s hardly the cure-all for democracy, our communities, or even the fate of humanity.
We can be forgiven for wanting this to be true. The world requires change and we know it. The Internet seemed the obvious tool of choice, and its immediacy and punch often satisfied the momentary emotion we felt. But there’s a sense that its reach (and it is immense) doesn’t quite match its grasp.
The reason for this is what it has always been: revolutionary tools (printing press, television, Internet) don’t necessarily produce revolutionaries. Some great idea will be promoted, people become agitated or inspired, but it is rare that significant enough portions of any population take up the cause. When the Arab Spring was at its height, commenters proclaimed that a new dawn of democracy was on its way. What we witnessed was hopeful, even inspiring, and with Facebook having some 600 million users at the time (10% of the world’s population), revolutionary change appeared around the corner. The numbers were so significant that Time magazine asked, “Is Egypt about to have a Facebook revolution?” One observer maintained that if you want to start a revolution, all you have to do is give people the Internet.
Well, it didn’t work out that way. The entire Western world is saturated with the Internet, yet the numbers of those demanding change and involving themselves to bring about that outcome remain relatively small. Citizens want change, but they don’t want to change their comfort level at the same time. They want cheaper education or better healthcare, but not if it requires more taxes. They continue to voice their disenchantment with modern politics yet refuse to vote. It’s always been this way in history. Revolutionary change only comes when enough people occupy the ramparts and fight the good fight, not merely when they encourage through Facebook or Twitter, as important as that is.
Yet media – social and traditional – can give the impression that more is taking place than really is. It’s what media researchers call “amplification.” Technology critic, Lewis Mumford, talked about this in his seminal work, The Myth of the Machine. Before modern communication technology appeared, ideas and words were communicated person to person, in the printed word, through lore, or in music. In those days it was pretty easy to tell who was onside for change and who wasn’t; there was no digital veil to hide behind. But the modern digital revolution can actually create what appears to be momentum where none exists, even as it creates greater awareness. Mumford understood this, saying that modern technology “supported and enlarged the capacities of human expression,” but didn’t necessarily lead to a change in conditions.
He was right, and no one can deny that social media is a powerful tool. But the real change agents are people, not their communication mechanisms. Social media can amplify our intentions, but it can also leave us on the sidelines as others take up the cause. Noted author Malcolm Gladwell has continued to question the modern age’s almost blind faith in social media. He observed that the Arab Spring “amplified” globally what was really happening, but that the picture was often more about aspirations than actions from the majority of the populations. He has a point.
If we truly want change, we must take up all the resources at our disposal. Yet the greatest resource of all is the human conscience bent on bringing about social change. True change requires people, citizens willing to take the risk required to let their generation know that they mean business. There is no substitute and no amount of Facebooking will make up for those individuals truly dedicated to their tasks and changing their world. As Mahatma Gandhi put it: “Champions are made from something they have deep inside of them – a desire, a dream, a vision.” Of this there is no digital equivalent.