People have been complaining about the pace of life for all of recorded history, so the old idea that social media has condensed and intensified our lives never made perfect sense to me. We have more access to more people in less time, but I think of this as a qualitative change and not a quantitative one.
I feel the same way about the development of current political discourse. Facebook, message boards, 24-hour news channels and websites, and of course Twitter have undoubtedly changed the way we discuss politics. But I hesitate to say that these media have created any entirely new trends, for better or worse.
Many pundits point to the Arab Spring as a sign that social media has changed how people organize in politics. Many of the movements developed, spread, and continued over social media.
But this is, in reality, only a superficial change. People always use the means available to them to enact change, and social media happens to be one of the most accessible platforms for communication in our world.
We can laud (or attack) social media for providing such a platform, but that does not change the reality: that change is as slow, unlikely, and stopgap as it has always been, with or without the presence of digital networks.
Of all the revolutions in the Arab Spring, only Tunisia’s was successful, and that has less to do with any specific medium of organization than with that country’s specific conditions. Social media does not change the actual relationships between people; it merely offers an additional way for people to access those relationships.
On a more trivial scale, the use of Twitter and other platforms in the United States to communicate political ideas to a wide audience differs from older forms only by degrees.
Just because more hot takes go viral now than before the Internet Age, it does not follow that those takes are having any more influence than, say, newspaper columns or radio broadcasts.
Our president’s liberal tweeting habits, the proliferation of online thinkpieces, the more-than-daily circulation of new controversies and viral messages, all of it may change the speed at which people communicate and absorb information, but ultimately we are all still human beings, and human beings only have so much time and energy in their lives with which to politic.
The fundamental limits of political action are not in its communication, but in its execution. Yes, restrictions on speech and the press exist—but that is true in so-called liberal democracies as well as so-called dictatorships, and people can always find access to subversive ideas if they seek them out. The real difference lies in what they do, or at least have the capacity to do, with those ideas.
It’s also important to note that most forms of social media have restrictions on expression at least as draconian as most countries, and often less even-handed. Even on platforms that supposedly make democracy easier, we are still beholden to the powers that be, only this time they’re corporations, not governments.
Social media, then, offers us another way, no better or worse on principle, to share those ideas before they turn into actions with tangible consequences. The word “media” is key: social media is simply one more form of communication with its own strengths and weaknesses.
In some ways, social media does make a political organizer’s job easier. They provide ready lists of interested, captive audience members, with unintrusive (for the most part) ways to reach them. But once people are on the list, once they actually do turn out, their success as political agents depends on their execution, not on whether they happened to post online or throw leaflets in the street.
Social media, and much of the world of technology in general, has little material effect on people’s lives, beyond an arguable kind of efficiency. The invention of the washing machine did not save people time washing clothes; it merely made people wash clothes more often.
Likewise, the technologies we have now offer us different ways to do the political work that people have always done. Social movements do not need digital media or even mass media. We know this. Look to the sixties, or the seventies, or the 1760s, and that’s only on this continent.
What social movements do need, in reality, is people willing to put in the necessary work. In the aftermath of political change, we judge events by what they accomplish more than the means used to achieve them.
If people use social media to effect change, all the power to them. But that power comes from the change, not the tools used. We judge impact, not intent—as Malcolm X put it, by any means necessary.