Monday, 7 February 2011

Why Social Media Means A Social Revolution

Social protests and revolutions are spreading like wildfire in the Middle East, shaking the very core of social orders which have been established for decades. In many ways the failed Green Revolution in Iran can be seen as a precursor to what we are seeing now in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, etc. Although the causes for these events are deep-rooted and varied, there is a general agreement that they would not have been possible without the social media revolution led by online blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. So what is it about the nature of social media that opens the possibility for social change where it has been supressed for so long?

In my Mission statement I mentioned a quote from “Democracy & Rhetoric: John Dewey on the Arts of Becoming”: 
“By making the individual both the means and the end of democracy, it [society] committed itself to investing its energies into creating individuals capable of possessing a moral will that achieves enough autonomy from dominant social forces that it is capable of reacting back on those forces with intelligence and power.”

One of the main imbalances that has existed in modern societies is the unequal access people have to channels of expression. So although there may be people who possess a moral will and achieve autonomy from sociel forces (media being one of the greatest of these), they do not have sufficient access to channels of expression. As a consequence of this, they may be able to react with intelligence, but not with power. Unless they are some of the few privileged to be in the spotlight, their reaction will not reach or influence many others. The potential for a public uprising is quenched before it has begun because they cannot distribute their message to enough people.As a result, the ones who controled the channels of expression controlled public opinion.

As I mentioned in Rhetorical Pressure and Moral Will, Kenneth Burke gave this warning in 1955:
“In practice, democratic states move toward a condition of partial tyranny to the extent that the channels of expression are not equally available to all factions in important public issues. Thus we see democracy being threatened by the rise of the enormous ‘policy-making’ mass media that exert great rhetorical pressure upon their readers without at the same time teaching them how to discount such devices; and nothing less than very thorough training in the discounting of rhetorical persuasiveness can make a citizenry truly free.”

What we can see right now is that social media has opened new channels of expression, and as a result information, emotions, and initiatives are spreading and bringing revolutionary consequences. Protests are being organized through Facebook groups and Twitter, restricted information about corrupt officials are available to everyone through Wikileaks and other web sites, and the social consciousness of new societies are being formulated by blogs and debated in online forums. Regimes are perplexed at this new social structure that is emerging. Unlike hierarchical institutions it is impossible to determine a leader you can kill or imprison to quell the movement. The new media are releasing private initiatives which organize themselves without directives from any organization. 

If any of you are in doubt about the real impact of the social media revolution, may I suggest you take a look at the following video clip ;)

We are in the middle of an exciting and scary media revolution. We do not know what social structure will emerge from the new possibilities of communication that we have unleashed. As Douglas Hesse points out, unlike the hierarchical structure of power and information, we are today experiencing “a quite different textual world in which knowledge and belief are shaped less by special isolated rhetorical acts than by countless encounters with any manner of texts, as if belief were a massive wiki."

In any case, I am excited about the possibilities this Brave New World offers, and if it can lead to a more democratic society, so much the better!