In the last couple of weeks this class has had many interesting readings and speakers concerning politics and the Internet. How to characterize this phenomenon of social media having an impact in the political world? Clearly there is something happening and this new technology has had a large part. People spoke of reaching out, raising money, connecting, advertising, creating dialogue, making videos, posting, tweeting, and all the other buzzwords used to sum up how these new tools are employed. And to top it all off we had an article from Gladwell that seemed to cast doubt on much of that. So, what gives?
In the end I think that Gladwell’s article, the responses, and the writing about Obama’s use of the internet are talking about two related but different things. Or, more accurately, the use of the same tools for related but ultimately different things. A couple of different issues stuck out for me in these readings. First, no matter how much technology is used, the people are what matter. That is the goal: to connect, alter the thinking of, and spur people to action. In reading Exley and Wallis, and in Graham Felson’s response piece to Gladwell, it was clear that new technology tools were instrumental in organizing. But they were a piece of the puzzle, and tremendous effort was made for person-to-person contact that used an innovative grass roots model. These new tools were used with a slow and patient approach, which may seem counter-intuitive to some since as Shirky explains, the barriers are reduced or eliminated to organizing with social media. Obama’s campaign nailed its message and delivery systems, constantly refining how it was done to find and motivate people as efficiently as possible with every way it could. As Gina Gantz told us, then as now, technology is a delivery system not a solution or strategy. The use of technology was impressive but it cannot be stressed enough that it wouldn’t have worked on its own. Just as Jeff Jarvis mentioned that the recent Rutgers suicide was about tragedy and not technology, this has little to do with 21st century revolution or campaigning. It is revolution and campaigning with the same goals and some new tools.
But this is where I think a distinction has to be made. The second issue that jumped out at me was that Gladwell wasn’t just talking about organizing or campaigning, he was talking about revolutionary activity. As correct as the responses were to Gladwell regarding the potential for people to organize easier with this technology, this is an order of magnitude different. Shirky said you needed the tool, promise and bargain with users. The promise and bargain take on vastly different meaning when they could potentially get you killed or arrested as in the case of a revolution, or even civil rights demonstrations in the US. Convincing people to vote in an open and free society is a different challenge than encouraging people to take to the streets in a closed one. Just as its clear that technology alone won’t win you an election, it won’t spur on a revolution either. Obama’s campaign may be a fantastic blueprint for how to incorporate new technology, but we don’t have one for the conditions necessary for it to aid in the overthrow of an oppressive regime vs. an uprising. The potential is there, but the questions remain: is the new technology used to oppress by oppressive regimes or can its citizens use it? Does social media forge the motivations and connections strongly enough? I would argue that you need to understand how a revolution happens in the first place, just as you understand the fundamentals of how a good campaign motivates voters, before you can conclusively decide when and how technology can have an impact.
There is a recent article in Foreign Affairs by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, titled the Digital Disruption, that talks about the inter-connectivity today that challenges authoritarian regimes but also poses dangers. Interestingly, it has a section titled “The Revolution Will Be Podcast,” that explains how disruptive technology that empowers citizens for good or ill has been around for ages. The article takes on a higher level view from the regime perspective of the Dictator’s Dilemma and how different governments handle the challenge of online activism, while explaining some of the ways that technology has impacted oppressive nations. This is valuable, yet addressing the social unrest that goes along with it is necessary to have a firm understanding, just as understanding the mind of voters and the best way to reach them is critical.
I think the Internet and all the new technology has a role to play in any potential revolution, provided the conditions are right. I’m not sure what those conditions are just yet, but I think its clear that the technology is not a 100% solution. The personal connections have to be made, the motivations, promise, and bargains in synch, and the delivery systems available just as in a political campaign. The success of the Internet in the Obama campaign yields valuable lessons for how this happens but I don’t see Gladwell or anyone else having the whole answer in the role technology can play.