Discussion of the political impact of social media has focused on the power of mass protests to topple governments. In fact, social media's real potential lies in supporting civil society and the public sphere -- which will produce change over years and decades, not weeks or months.
AN ABSENCE OF EVIDENCE
While reading Clay Shirky's "The Political Power of Social Media" (January/February 2011), I was reminded of a trip I took just over ten years ago, during the dot-com bubble. I went to the catalog clothier Lands' End in Wisconsin, determined to write about how the rise of the Internet and e-commerce was transforming retail. What I learned was that it was not. Having a Web site, I was told, was definitely an improvement over being dependent entirely on a paper catalog and a phone bank. But it was not a life-changing event. After all, taking someone's order over the phone is not that much harder than taking it over the Internet. The innovations that companies such as Lands' End really cared about were bar codes and overnight delivery, which utterly revolutionized the back ends of their businesses and which had happened a good ten to 15 years previously.
The lesson here is that just because innovations in communications technology happen does not mean that they matter; or, to put it another way, in order for an innovation to make a real difference, it has to solve a problem that was actually a problem in the ﬁrst place. This is the question that I kept wondering about throughout Shirky's essay-and that had motivated my New Yorker article on social media, to which Shirky refers: What evidence is there that social revolutions in the pre-Internet era suffered from a lack of cutting-edge communications and organizational tools? In other words, did social media solve a problem that actually needed solving? Shirky does a good job of showing how some recent protests have used the tools of social media. But for his argument to be anything close to persuasive, he has to convince readers that in the absence of social media, those uprisings would not have been possible.
MALCOLM GLADWELL is a Staff Writer for The New Yorker.
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