Social Media Isn't Changing the World, It's Creating a New One

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 Care2.com, 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 weigh 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.

I could go on, but it’s obvious to even the casual observer that needed change across a range of issues - from environment to healthcare to economy - is not happening. Activism is having little impact. And at best social media is a wash in all this. At worst is the more likely case that corporations use social media more effectively than civil society.  We need a new game entirely.

Does this mean that we should give up on activism? No. It’s crucial, but not for the reasons stated by activists. Activism can’t get the change needed by itself, but it slows the destruction caused by state capitalism, educates citizens about the issues, brings citizens into dialog about social change, and builds community among those who are concerned. As a board member of two nonprofits, Forest Ethics and Independent Arts & Media, I remain a committed activist. And I wouldn't have co-founded Shareable without having become an activist first.

However, I believe a new, more powerful front of social change has opened up. Consequently, I now focus most of my energy on helping to catalyze the shift to a peer economy through Shareable. This shift doesn’t replace activism, it complements it. And it's the new game we need. As commons expert Silke Helfrich said in an interview recently about what’s needed to address poverty and climate change simultaneously, “the essential ideals of state capitalism - top-down government enforcement and the so called "invisible hand" of the market - have to be marginalized by co-governance principles and self-organised co-production of the commons by people in localities across the world.”

Coincidently, the day after Gladwell published his article slamming social media, Shareable and partner Latitude Research released The New Sharing Economy, a report exploring the role social media is playing in this shift. The research was inspired by noticeable surge in Internet startups that help people share offline stuff. Simultaneously, two new books, What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption and The Mesh, have come out arguing that this startup activity is part of a fundamental shift from an ownership to a sharing economy. They document the trend and its reach into an increasing number categories of shared use including office spacelodgingtextbookskids clothesparking spacesgarden plotsplanescamera lenseshandbagsboatshousehold items, and more.

This is a promising trend from a social change perspective because like commons, these services offer many social benefits: lower costs, stronger communities, resource conservation, broader access to resources, and higher quality products made for sharing. Sharing addresses many problems at once - an appropriate solution for an era of interconnected crises.

Importantly, economics and demographics are behind the trend - it's more than technology driven. Sharing saves money in an era of high unemployment, high household debt, and declining wages. Millennials, the first web native generation, bring the practices of the web - where sharing is core - into real life. In addition, Millennials value relationships, experiences, and social good over bling. Even stogy car companies are adjusting their plans to accommodate a generation that wants to access personal transportation on demand as if it was a service in the cloud. 

Social media is enabling the trend along with mobile phones. As Kim Gaskins of Latitude says about the role of social media in the shift:

The confluence of media and technology was first groundbreaking in it's ability to connect people to information.  Then it was really about connection people to other people with the advent of web 2.0. Now the natural extension of all this is connecting people to stuff - to the physical things of everyday life.  We're at a point where online, shared interest communities and advancements in mobile, real-time and location aware technologies have created a 'perfect storm' for sharing in the physical world.

And as our research suggests, social media is paving the way for growth of sharing:

  • 78% of participants felt their online interactions with people have made them more open to the idea of sharing with strangers, suggesting that the social media revolution has broken down trust barriers.
  • 85% of all participants believe that Web and mobile technologies will play a critical role in building large-scale sharing communities in the future.
  • 75% of respondents predicted their sharing of physical objects and spaces will increase in the next 5 years.

This spurt of sharing entrepreneurship, however, is only one aspect of the shift to a Shareable society. As Shareable shows on a daily basis, peer-driven, open source methods of production and consumption are reaching into seemingly every corner of global society. The trend appears unstoppable because this new economic mode works better both online and off in many important areas of life. Plus, the spirit of this movement - whether embodied by the open source proper, Transition Towns, or worker coops - is to create new, peer-based economic relations that do not rely on the market and state. This makes it difficult for state capitalism to disrupt it. It truly is a new game. The dinosaurs of state capitalism have met the mammals of open source - an evolutionary shift is on. As David Bollier says in his book Viral Spiral:

A world organized around centralized control, strict intellectual property rights, and hierarchies of credentialed experts is under siege. A radically different order of society based on open access, decentralized creativity, collaborative intelligence, and cheap and easy sharing is ascendant.

Social media is the perfect handmaiden for this change. It’s not only an enabling technology and cultural training ground, but gives citizens the perfect medium for evangelizing a new mode of cultural and economic production. Sharing is indeed viral.

So, Messr. Gladwell, I agree with you. Social media isn’t changing the world, but it is helping to create a new one that will obsolete the old. Viva la evolucion.

Teaser image courtesy of opensource.com.

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