Wednesday, October 20, 2010

the limits of social media

Shareable | Blogs have been a twitter about Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article last week slamming those who believe social media can revolutionize activism. The article compares the high risk activism of the civil rights movement with Twitter’s role in the Iranian elections concluding that, “the revolution will not be tweeted.”

First of all, taking aim at those who are love drunk for social media is like shooting fish in a barrel. Secondly, it’s no revelation that a tweet is less effective than putting your life on the line for a cause.

Moreover, Gladwell gets the role of the online activism wrong. As someone who worked with professional online activists on a daily basis for two years while at, I can tell you that none of my clients believed online activism had much value by itself. It was always part of a larger strategy and, as Mashable pointed out, serves a very specific role in activism – it offers citizens a no risk first step on the path to higher risk engagement. But this is no reinvention as Mashable argues. It’s mostly optimization.

From my perspective as publisher of Shareable, Gladwell's article and the resulting hubbub misses the larger points:

1.) activism by itself can’t achieve its stated aims no matter what medium is used. A new social order requires a new economy.

2.) social media is primarily creative – its true power is not as a tool for resistance but as a coordinating medium for an emerging peer-economy which promises to obsolete state capitalism.

The reason I co-founded Shareable is that having been a lobbyist and a capitalist, and now a nonprofit activist, I’ve come to believe that activism by itself is no match for state capitalism. I remember vividly the time ten years ago when I naively asked a peer at the FCC, who I interfaced with as a representative of a large telecom trade association, where the FCC got their market research. They said, “from you.” I was shocked. The FCC didn’t do their own research. They relied mainly on industry for that. Of course the public could way in too, but the presence of public interest advocacy seemed minimal. We, on the other hand, never missed a beat. The association membership was unified and funded our lobbying efforts well.

This story points to a systemic issue - activists face a classic collective action problem that has no resolution: the nonprofit sector is composed of many entities with many agendas; the corporate sector is composed of a smaller number of vastly more powerful entities with only one agenda – profit. This means that it’s significantly easier for corporations to act collectively and achieve their goals than it is for nonprofits. This is partly why corporations have become so powerful.

Bottom line, the nonprofit sector is structurally fucked and social media doesn’t change this one byte, because after all it’s available to both sides in the game. The failure of the COP15 climate negotiations is a good example of activism’s limits. And then there’s this brave letter from Bill McKibben admitting that the environmental movement is failing to get action on climate change. This is despite having public opinion on its side and a legion of activist across the globe. Fist tap Dale.