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Social Advocacy & Politics: Don't Sell the Political Power of Social Media Short

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Before the Internet, the tedious work of organizing that was required to circumvent censorship or to organize a protest also helped build infrastructure for decision making and strategies for sustaining momentum. Now movements can rush past that step, often to their own detriment.

- ZEYNEP TUFEKCI (NYT Op-ed, March 19, 2014

Good online organizers know that their online campaigns have to be part of a comprehensive movement to succeed in making lasting change. But is it necessarily true that social media campaigns that “rush past” the “tedious work” of organizing do so to their “detriment?”

If we take the long view, we can see social media rushing past the information barriers that used to keep long-tail supporters of social change disconnected in the wilderness. Like Egyptians spread across the countryside suddenly connected to like-minded protesters in the heart of Cairo, the disconnected, the diaspora, the long-tail of people craving change become part of the movement of people thanks to social media.

In the Occupy Movement, social media helped move the conversation about inequality from campgrounds in city parks to the heart of the 2012 presidential debate. Sure, inequality still exists, but 2012 was the first time in generations that inequality was a focal point of a national election. And it remains at the center of today’s political debate (as long as you don’t get distracted by Obamacare or a bright shiny BENGHAZI!). The war on inequality is far from over, but it owes its newest launch to that disorganized, no demand-issuing, bunch of finger wiggling hippies who used social media in a masterful, decentralized, Shirkyesque way to fire up the imagination of activist around the country and the debates of politicians in the halls of government.

And while Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan may be trying to ban Twitter after a spontaneous protest erupted from a funeral, it was the Turkish President who took to Twitter to object to the move. His tweet may not have solved the problems in Turkey, but it did move the process of change there forward in a meaningful way.

Is it ironic that Tufekci’s critique of social media takes a too short, dare I say “immediate gratification,” view for assessing the impact of social media, a medium that trains us to crave immediate gratification? (Insert whiney Alanis Morisette joke here.) How soon must we see the ROI for a smart mob or a trending hashtag? I suggest we need to be patient.

The social media rushes Tufekci describes are definitely moments in social evolution and, perhaps, they will become part of a comprehensive social revolution. But social eruptions will most likely fall in between, likely to be part of some social change, sometimes large and often small.

Someone once told me that a communist was a socialist in a bloody hurry, the former a revolutionary and the latter an evolutionary. Revolutions don’t happen frequently. And while evolution is slow when it happens, sometimes we get extinction. Similarly, while few social media bursts will be part of a revolution, many will be part of evolution and some may burst only to fade away into extinction. But that is no reason to write off the power of social media. It still will play a role in much evolution and, maybe, a revolution or two.

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