There’s a bit a lot of discussion lately about the role of social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter in the popular uprisings taking place recently. The threatened governments have reacted by blocking Internet access. I’m not convinced that the importance of these sites is really as a means for organizers to communicate with the demonstrators. Rather, I think in those circumstances, the importance of the Internet lies in publicizing the events – fulfilling our demand for instant news updates. No longer are we willing to wait for the nightly news or the daily newspaper. We expect constant feeds and updates on the world around us.
I think, and this is only my opinion without research to back it up, that the instant flow information is changing the way we approach many aspects of our life. We don’t read newspapers any more: we read RSS feeds to get the headlines, always seeking the recent information. That change of pace carries over into the way we do business. We don’t write letters any more; we send emails. We don’t write letters to the editor; we write blog postings (Yes, I’m guilty) or Tweet our opinions. But just as I question the effectiveness of social media “on the ground” in organizing popular uprisings, I doubt their worth as tools of social activism even within a society where they are almost fully-integrated parts of people’s daily lives, like in the U.S.
I’ve heard feedback (second-hand, I admit) from elected officials that one hard-copy lettersent via snail mail carries more weight than hundreds of emails. Emails are so easy! We can cut and paste text and click a button. It takes a matter of moments. And emails are so ephemeral. They take up no space and a staffer can easily delete them when the virtual mail box gets too full. A physical letter requires a bit more effort, and therefore commitment, on the part of the sender. It arrives with a physical presence at the representative’s office. Several of them together start to stack up. Why, people even paid for stamps to mail those letters!
When we’re not sending emails, we’re “liking” organizations and causes on Facebook. It takes no real effort, a simple point and click. But it feels good, like we’re joining a huge popular wave of opinion and will make a difference. But does anyone really care how many people like a Facebook cause? Does it really have a positive impact? It may if it makes people more informed and generates real activism. But I fear that too many of us exercise a point and click version of social activism. We express our opinion and then sit back, smugly satisfied that we have done our part to make the world a better place. We Tweet our outrage or support of an issue. But who really notices those messages – those who follow you or the issue because they already agree with you? We sign digital petitions. But do those carry the same weight as the paper and ink versions when the organization submits them to a government office?
Now, think what would happen if, for just one out of every 10 or 20 acts of digital activism you perform, you actually wrote a real letter to your Congressman or Senator. What if everybody did this? Maybe it’s time to take a step back and cast a critical eye on these tools. Just because we’ve embraced them whole-heartedly doesn’t mean that the “powers that be” have. Providing a free and rapid flow of information is important and we should never underestimate the power of education. But the trick is to take the step from virtual activism to concrete actions. Then we really make the world a better place.