“Does it turn out that social media is better at breaking things than at making things?” asked Thomas Freidman in his NY Times column on February 3rd. The answer, he suggests, is “a big yes.” But he over-simplifies a complex global phenomenon, and in doing so, offers an entry point into a more nuanced and contrarian perspective.
On the one hand, Friedman’s conclusions have a basic validity, as affirmed by the story he cites from Wael Ghonim, one of the virtual activists who helped launch the Arab Spring. We can all identify with the core criticism of social media as being “filled with trolls, lies, [and] hate speech” and thus “facilitating the spread of misinformation, rumors, [and] echo chambers.” On the other hand, Ghonim himself believes that “if we want to liberate society, we first need to liberate the Internet,” suggesting that social media is an essential part of the solution as well as the problem. Friedman cites this conclusion, but somehow seems to miss its importance, using Ghonim primarily to reinforce his own establishment and anti-revolutionary views.
But Ghonim’s example demonstrates that much is happening online to bring people together in meaningful ways, even as our tools for doing so are still evolving. A former “entrepreneur in residence” Google Ventures, he has launched a new platform called Parlio to support “conversations that matter,” as opposed to the virtual soapboxes that our most popular platforms now resemble. We tell ourselves that text-based conversation is inherently limited, because so much of in-person communication is non-verbal. Let us not forget, however, that the written word is one of the most powerful inventions in human history.
Our current social media tools make it is very easy, as Ghonim points out, to treat the person on the other side of one’s screen as an avatar or caricature, and thus to make derisive statements that one would be far less likely to say to someone’s face. And this is just one of five factors that Ghonim cites, and Friedman repeats, that limit the potential of platforms like Facebook to generate positive social outcomes. But like Ghonim, I believe that better tools can change that dynamic. I also think that this view of social media is itself a caricature, as a massive amount of kind and generative dialogue is indeed taking place online.
I would add that this trend toward polarization is primarily the product of the times we are living in, rather than something that is being driven by social media or the Internet itself. Yes, as Ghonim and Friedman suggest, there is a positive feedback loop with social media in its current form, such that it serves to escalate the polarization we see so clearly all around us. But out there in the “real world,” our institutions are failing us across the board. Some of us see this as clear evidence that is both possible and necessary to create a society that evolves beyond consumerism, social injustice, endless war, and an economy that exploits rather than serves Life. Others, lacking faith in the essential goodness of humanity, seek authoritarian answers, driven by fear for their own safety and the simplicity of blaming “the Other” for what ails us all. Caught in the middle are reformers like Friedman, who still believe in the essential effectiveness of the modern nation-state and global capitalism, arguing for reform rather than revolution.
Just as it is an oversimplification to blame polarization on social media, to write off the Arab Spring or Occupy as transient failures misses the ways in which they are still playing out powerfully today. Witness the populist wave now sweeping both sides of the American political spectrum. It’s obvious in Bernie’s case — his Iowa “victory” speech, for example, sounded to me like it came straight out of the Occupy playbook. But we see it in the anti-establishment fervor of the Right as well, where there is broad acceptance of the evils of “crony capitalism” and “the corporatocracy.”
Friedman echoes the core refrain we hear so often: “once the smoke cleared, most of these revolutions failed to build any sustainable new political order, in part because as so many voices got amplified, consensus-building became impossible.” I say this analysis gets things backward. The existence of an underlying consensus is what allowed a Facebook page to ignite a mass movement that toppled a dictator in Egypt in the first place. A similar mass alignment caused a Wall Street protest against “the 1%” to go viral and fundamentally change the global conversation about economic inequality and the capture of our political system by moneyed interests.
That these efforts “failed” was due to factors well beyond social media. They were violently repressed by reactionary power structures, precisely because they were making a difference. Their impact was also limited by the fact that “constructive programs” (to use the Ghandian phrase) were not in place to provide the masses with new alternatives to the things that were being protested against. There was no viable centrist political entity in Egypt to challenge the Muslim Brotherhood once Mubarek was gone. Similarly, we were not ready to replace the big banks, let alone the global casino-capitalist economy, as Occupy argued we must. As a result, these movements were missing a critical element of any successful revolution. But that wasn’t the fault of social media!
Accomplishing a revolution is a longer struggle than many had hoped. The odds still may not be in our favor, but social media remains one of our best tools for winning. It IS a revolutionary expansion of humanity’s capacity to connect with itself. And historically, such expansions in our expressive capacity have always led, over time, to fundamental shifts in the way we organize ourselves socially, politically, and economically. And that doesn’t mean things will work out for the best — the “destroyer or creator” question is still very much an open one in one one sense, though in another, the answer is obviously “both/and.”
I’m interested in testing out Parlio, Ghonim’s new platform for conversations that “reward thoughtfulness, civility, and mutual understanding.” Perhaps you would like to join me in this experiment, by creating a cohort to engage on it together? Additionally, I have been developing my own ideas for tools that might shift text-based engagement from, to use Ghonim’s words, “experiences that favor broadcast over engagement, posts over discussions, talking at, not talking with.” Perhaps some of you might want to partner with me in developing these further, including working with Medium as a testing ground for sparking a revolution in text-based communication.