Social media: democratizing the Internet, or talking to silos?

There’s a debate going on right now, among those who talk about such things, about whether social media are revolutionizing the way people connect across divergent networks or just adding to the echo chambers, and, further, about whether that question really matters so much after all.

I don’t know that I have anything terribly insightful to add to those debates, but I do think that the whole discussion has import for community organizers and policy advocates thinking about how social media can play a role in our social change work.

Because, the reality is, no technology makes human beings stop behaving like human beings, and we wouldn’t like one that did, anyway.

And so we have to understand human nature in order to accept the limits of social media for community organizing or transformational engagement with the most compelling challenges of our day. And we have to organize and plan with and around those limits, so that we have a chance at the transcendental human community that motivates our organizing (or should).

First, some context. In an essay for Rebooting America, David Weinberger acknowledges that only low double digit percentages of links in social media forums point to opposing viewpoints. He reminds us, though, that such behavior mirrors how we live and think. He asks, “how often do people read the columnists they disagree with? How much time in the day do you spend talking rationally and calmly about matters of state with people with whom you disagree?”

Again, we can’t expect Twitter to overcome human nature.

He almost sounds like a social worker talking about how our conversation about the issues that matter most to us is seldom “an isolated exercise of pure, unfettered rationality in which we suspend core beliefs in order to think again about what those beliefs ought to be.”

We come to these endeavors shaped by who we are, and who we know, and, while new technologies can tweak around the edges of both of those constraints, they certainly do not erase them.

He argues that this is not only ‘normal’, but, indeed, quite helpful. He points out that “conversation among people who are in basic agreement builds relationships and foments political movement.”

We certainly see this in the offline world, too; activists get most inspired in rallies with other ‘converted’ allies, new leaders are cultivated through relationships with like-minded peers, and momentum is built through focus on core values with those who share them.

And, it’s not like talking to those likely to agree with us is a waste of time.

Just a few weeks ago, when I was giving a presentation about immigrant rights to a group of immigrant youth, I acknowledged that their life stories made them a particularly sympathetic audience. But I make no apologies for spending some of my organizing time in such venues. I say often, “I’ll stop preaching to the choir when they start singing.”

Our causes are littered with silent allies.

In the same volume, though, danah boyd raises some concerns about this “echo chamber” effect, both profound and almost technical.

She reminds us that alienated and uninterested people mainly know people like themselves, and so we are closing ourselves off to vast swaths of the population if we rely on established networks (online and offline) to cultivate new leadership.

She speaks for every worthless activist email ever sent when she illustrates the difference between organizing virtually and physically; “at least, offline, you know when a door has been slammed in your face, whereas online, it just goes into the abyss.” How many of us have consoled ourselves with all of our organizing “work”, when our reliance on tight, insular networks gives us the false impression that our message has taken hold to a much greater extent than it really has?

So, then, some thoughts on what this means for organizers and activists, in the offline and online realms. And, those of you organizing in either “world” today, how do you work around this silo tendency? Or do you? Where do you draw the boundaries of your “community”, and how does that definition influence how you reach out and engage? What practical strategies have you developed for reaching beyond your usual suspects?

  • First, I don’t share danah boyd’s lament that most social media publics today are organized around personal connection, not issue or topic. That’s the way we live, and that’s the way we should organize, too. Relationships are what draw people in to issues, and keep them there, and, while we can’t assume that the relationship is, in and of itself, sufficient, it’s certainly the best place we have to start.
  • Language matters, especially when trying to straddle communities. Even if we’re spending a lot of time talking within our own silo, we have to know that those in the next one over will at least know what we’re talking about when we reach out, and that means having enough connection that we develop messages that make sense beyond our narrow frame of reference.
  • Most obviously, if social media are segmented, we need to have an online engagement strategy with a presence in multiple ‘silos’. I think there’s a lot of truth in Weinberger’s assessment that the insular nature of a given channel isn’t that problematic, but that reassurance falls apart if we’re only listening in that one channel. Just as we’d never think to skip all of the renter-occupied houses in a neighborhood organizing campaign, we can’t focus on only one online ‘cluster’, either.
  • Finally, my ubiquitous note on power. Because, after all, what makes a certain community, or cause, prevail, quite honestly isn’t always its superior rationality, or even better communication strategy. That’s not the way that our political system works. It’s not the case that change happens once a majority of people have had a vigorous discussion about the pros and cons of a certain approach and decided, “let’s do it this way.”

    We win with power.

    And, truthfully, we can build power by strengthening the relationships within our silo, if it’s large enough and strategically connected to those with influence over the decisions at hand.

    Even if we never have coffee with the folks in the next silo over.

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