The Organizing Power of Social Media

For this week’s class we read a variety of articles; from academic papers to pieces from Vanity Fair and everything in between.  The common thread between these disparate writing forms was the notion of the organizing power of social media.  While this was not the first time I had heard or read about social media being viewed as a change agent in enabling social change, there were a couple items that struck me as unique from a couple of these articles.

What is Occupy Wall Street – Washington Post :  “We are all leaders”… REALLY??

In the WP article, Social media was positioned as an enabler of participatory democracy; a vehicle for allowing a wide variety of voices/themes to unify for a cause, verses promotion of shouting over each other for their own selfish purpose. Further, this alternative media is represented as a virtual welcome mat for any would be causes looking for a means to join forces based on “principles of unity”; anti-authoritarian, anti-discrimination.

Up to the point that this article used the women’s rights movement of an example of a similar and “leaderless protest”, I was hanging with them.  Have they not heard of Gloria Steinem, renowned New York feminist and journalist who was the feminist spokesperson of the 60’s?  What about Carol Hanisch, considered a “radical feminist”, a member of New York’s Redstockings group?  She protested Miss American and certainly represented the women’s rights protests as a leader when she came up with the saying “The Personal is Political”.  We can all have voices… we cannot all be Leaders, just like we can all play in a football game, but that does not mean we are all winners when the clock ticks down to zero.

Social media does make for democratic prioritization of issues.  For me however, whether you are using social media or not, a leader to unify the issues is important, and if the cause is really a cause – a clear leader or set of leaders will emerge.  Social media provides the megaphone to the masses for these leaders, and the lack of a leader results in just a bunch of people shouting in the streets & Tweeting on line to themselves.

 Here Comes Everybody – Clay Shirky

Clay Shirky’s article was based on a sad story forced into the light of day by the organizing power of social media.  With a tone of irony, I say THANK GOD for social media in this case.  In this article, the words that resonated for me were…

Social tools do not create social /collective action, they merely remove the existing obstacles.

The old obstacles highlighted in this article were 1) the locality of information and 2) built in barriers preventing group sharing of information.  The notion that social media takes local information global seemed intuitive to me, but how that “globalness” results in totally re-constructing, the borders of organizations had completely eluded me.  Even more compelling was the idea that this restructuring cannot be contained by the “rules of the local”, because they no longer have any relevance or jurisdiction.  A curious quandary for organization rule makers and for sure – another opportunity for our WebLawyer.

Finally, the barrier breaking nature of social media to increase group sharing seems almost Sci-Fi when you think back to the days of clipping paper articles, making copies, and waiting for US Postal correspondence; frankly, in reflection, I had nearly forgotten just how long that cycle took.  In addition, back then when someone sent you a Xeroxed article on some topic, you always wondered if it was real – or if someone had doctored something up using the copier.  I suppose the same is true for the web and social media– you can make anything up and create WebPages out of thin air in minutes, but now so many people have access to the same set of information that the fakers are found out almost as quickly as they release their bogus info.

The bottom line for social media and the power to organize:  SM is a tool for informing, sharing and growing a cause; it breaks old paradigms but also creates a few new ones.  It is not a panacea but does allow us an opportunity to rethink boundaries of all kinds, including geographic, social, and political ones.